Morris from America (2016) Review!!

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Synopsis – The romantic and coming-of-age misadventures of a 13-year-old American living in Germany.

My Take – Usually while watching a coming of age or a feel good kind of film, a few minutes into the run time, its obvious what the outcome is going to be, but surprisingly this Chad Hartigan film doesn’t play on similar tropes. Without using any form of tacky over played scenarios, the film albeit some missing plot holes is delightful fish-out-of-water comedy that’s interesting and bold and brings something new to the genre. Being a well executed growing-up comedy and a little foul-mouthed with a transnational spin, the film examines the ways that ideas about differing cultures move in different directions. The story follows 13-year-old Morris (Markees Christmas) who along with his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson) have relocated to Heidelberg in Germany, where Curtis, a former semi-pro soccer player, has been hired on to coach the local team. Possessed with the strange freedom that marks a summer vacation spent in a foreign country, Morris spends his mornings learning German with the help of an obliging graduate student, Inka (Carla Juri), and his afternoons barely using the language at the local youth centre.

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Surrounded by strangers, the boy transforms from a charming, amiable jokester into a taciturn outcast, the general weirdness of his circumstances exacerbated by his cruel German counterparts, who tease him for his perceived lack of basketball skills, accuse him of dealing marijuana, or taunt him about his weight. However, Morris receives a different reaction from the blonde beauty Katrin (Lina Keller), an impish, generally aloof popular girl whose physical maturity is countermanded by a childish impulsiveness. Sick of the town’s close-minded staidness and bored by her juvenile classmates, Katrin takes an interest in Morris, one that vacillates between mocking flirtation, genuine concern, and surreptitious bullying. The question of whether Katrin is toying with Morris, legitimately invested in his outsider appeal, or some mixture of both, however, is inevitably moot. Firstly, this is not exactly a film about race or racism and could have easily have been done with two white leads instead of black leads. It’s just a simple film about a 13-year-old boy discovering sexuality and entering an adult world by experiencing love for the 1st time, as well as how his father deals with a growing up teenager without his deceased wife. There are so many ways that this film could have ended up like so many other teen-falls-in-with-a-bad-crowd films, but that’s not what happens here. Instead, this film shows us a real kid, with real issues, and a real — as in living but flawed — relationship with his father. The issues aren’t huge on the grand scale of life, but they certainly loom large for Morris, a deeply empathetic character who makes this charming film so winning. He likes Katrin, but she vacillates between flirting with him and making fun of him with her friends. He wants to fit in, but he isn’t sure about drinking or taking drugs with his new friends. Director Chad Hartigan and Christmas makes us care about this boy, who’s not so sweet or so kind but is instead struggling with problems that anyone who’s ever been 13 can understand. The film’s moral center is Morris’ relationship with his dad, who wants to be his son’s pal but also has to rein him in sometimes. Curtis, pushes his son to get out in the world but then worries about him. He’s tough but sweet and loving, and it’s a pleasure to see the father and son characters connect, even when they fight. The film avoids clichés and stereotypes about African-American fathers and sons, replacing them with an authentic portrait of youth, grief, the need to belong, and a search for deep familial connection. Thinking about it, race to some extend does play a small part in a sub plot here (well depending on the way you look at it), when Morris develops a lopsided friendship with his object of his teenage affection, Katrin. Two years older than her admirer, Katrin is way out of Morris’ league. But she entertains his infatuation anyway—partially because Morris presents an exotic alternative to the horny German speaking idiots that circle her like flies, but mostly because she’s flattered by the attention and wants to freak out her conservative mother.

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Anyone who’s ever willfully allowed themselves to be led on by a crush who plainly does not reciprocate their feelings will nod with wistful recognition. Teenage boys past and current may be less eager to admit that they see themselves in the scene of Morris, ready to burst with frustration, finding a creative new use for his pillow. Alone in his bedroom, young Morris (a remarkably understated Markees Christmas) hastily constructs a replica of a woman from his pillow, a pair of sweatpants, and the blue cardigan left behind by the object of his affection. Makeshift woman in arms, he first engages in a prelude of slow dancing, gently squeezes and paws at his creation, then undresses it as a segue into some tender, hesitant humping. What’s notable about this scene is how Hartigan’s tight close-ups emphasize the ragged gaps in the structure of his would-be romantic scenario; the filmmaker spotlights Morris’s messily made bed, the boxers blooming out from his low-slung athletic shorts, and the overall awkwardness of his unsure movements. Beyond this textured portrayal, this film is especially perceptive about the effect of external influence on personal development, particularly how a combination of bittersweet moments, experiences, and lessons mix together to nudge a boy from blissful childhood ignorance to empirically established manhood. Somehow, Hartigan manages to subvert some of the moldy clichés of underdog cinema, blowing past an expected triumph and then undercutting the replacement one with the stark reality of Morris’ (mostly hypothetical) love life. Ultimately, familiarity can’t entirely diminish the pleasures of a film this genuinely sweet, from the humor and heart Christmas and Robinson conjure in their scenes together to the insight into alienated youth that Hartigan wrings from some very common tropes. Yes, its the old fish-out-of-water scenario, but Hartigan does so much with it that it actually seems fresh. And what makes it so is his deft understanding of how people different than us are quick to make assumptions. Plus if you’re going to tell a coming-of-age story about a kid with a tough-love father, a dead mother, and a hopeless crush on the coolest girl in town, you’re going to need all the unique perspective you can muster. Craig Robinson, best known as a comic sidekick in films like Hot Tub Time Machine and Pineapple Express, and for TV roles on The Office and Mr. Robot, hasn’t been given many big-screen chances to showcase his dramatic gifts, which come as this slight but easy-to-love film’s richest and most rewarding surprise. Markees Christmas is surprisingly good and seems to come alive most opposite Robinson. Lina Keller and Carla Juri are flawless. On the whole, ‘Morris from America’ is a funny as well as an emotional film with a small story but a huge heart.

3.5

Directed – Chad Hartigan

Starring –  Markees Christmas,  Craig Robinson,  Carla Juri

Rated – R

Run Time – 91 minutes

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