If you're a sucker for a good coming-of-age story, then "Morris from America" (opening today, Sept 2) is a film you desperately need to seek out. It's funny, different, and one of more surprising finds of the year.
Newcomer Markees Christmas plays Morris, a 13-year-old African-American boy living with his dad Curtis (Curtis Robinson) in Germany. The film opens with father-and-son rapping together, as dad is trying to make Morris appreciate the simplified beats of hip-hop's distant past. Like any kid getting a lecture from their parents, Morris isn't all that interested and would rather try to emulate his heroes, Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, and other gangsta rappers he looks up to. But this initial interaction between the two - the disagreements, the gentle ribbing, the clash of authority - perfectly sets up this compelling, nuanced relationship and sets the tone for what is to come next.
Morris has a mentor, Inka (Carla Juri, who is wonderful in the role), whom he meets with daily who is helping him with his German. Morris still doesn't quite fit in at school and is teased by the others. The race issue is not beaten over our heads, but it is made clear that Morris is not only the only black kid at his school - but that he may be the only black kid any of these Germans have ever seen. He meets a girl, Katrin (Lina Keller), and she asks him directly to address most of the racial stereotypes that exist. Like the audience watching this film, Katrin is not sure what to make of Morris, as everything about him (and about this film) somehow feels fresh and new.
It has all of the fish-out-of-water, growing-up elements that we are used to finding in a coming-of-age comedy, but this story is infused with real heart and a sense of realism by writer/director Chad Hartigan. We all know Craig Robinson from "The Office," "Hot Tub Time Machine," and countless other comedies, but he absolutely blows this performance out of the water, and raises the film to new heights. Between him, Markees Christmas, and Carla Juri, this is one of the best ensembles of the year, none of which have over-the-top dramatic scenes to play with, but all of which do subtly brilliant work.
Curtis is not your typical father-figure, and Morris is not your typical teenager. Set in Germany of all places, it helps the viewer share Morris's hesitation with the outside world. Later in the film, the story takes some unexpected turns and twists, and we realize that we are watching a love story: A story about love not just between a man and a woman, but between a father and a son. It touches on themes of not only "growing up," but how sometimes love can lead you into some crazy situations. Father and son, it seems after all, are not all that different.
"Morris from America" is a small film that deserves a wide audience, and one of the best little films of the year.
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Runtime: 1 hour, 31 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Craig Robinson, Markees Christmas, Carla Juri, Lina Keller
Written & Directed by Chad Hartigan ("This is Martin Bonner," "Luke and Brie Are on a First Date")
Opens locally on Friday, Sept 2, 2016
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