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Release Date: August 19, 2016 (Limited and VOD)
Director: Chad Hartigan
MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 90 Minutes

In essence, Morris from America is a straightforward coming-of-age story, which uses a handful of recognizable tropes in depicting its 13-year-old protagonist as he begins to discover himself. There are run-ins with the “establishment” authority, impromptu adventures in the big city and, of course, girls.

What writer-director Chad Hartigan does differently is add another element. The boy, Morris (Markees Christmas), and his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), are Americans who have moved across the pond to Germany. Curtis has gotten a job on the coaching staff of the local soccer team. Morris has to make friends in this new environment, but to complicate that already difficult task, he has to learn a second language in the process.

At the start of the film, Curtis is in the process of passing rap music, one of his passions, down to his son. While Morris is initially hesitant, he slowly sees it as a way to keep in touch with a heritage that is all but absent from his new home.

There is a talent show at the local youth center, and Morris has written a rap that he wishes to perform, but Curtis dislikes it – not because it is explicit (which it is) – but because the lyrics tell of fictitious escapades, unreflective of Morris’ actual life experience. While he ends up bombing onstage, a girl named Katrin (Lina Keller) admires his effort. She seems mystical to Morris, someone only a couple of years older than him, yet carrying what feels like more independence and maturity.

And so, as all 13-year-old boys would, he embarks on a relentless quest to further their friendship and cultivate it into something more. But whether his actions are rational – and if they actually pay off – could end up being a different question entirely.

Markees Christmas is a natural performer, who carries Morris from America in a natural, beguiling way. He prevents Morris from becoming an overly crisp or spiky character, as so many teenagers in movies are written as, but instead one who thinks and functions as a real person. It is to the credit of both Christmas and Hartigan that this is pulled off.

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Morris makes a number of choices throughout the film, which are inexplicable yet understandable upon examination of the protagonist’s psyche, cluttered with the storm of early pubescence, as well as the difficulty of not only stepping out of his comfort zone, but also having to redefine it entirely. The fact that he has to deal with some obnoxious new locals is an added tempest.

Morris’ first interaction with a boy his age is when he’s pestered to play basketball. In another scene, the director of the youth center is notified of a joint found on the premises. Presiding over a room of 20 or 30 students, he immediately pulls aside Morris and interrogates him. While Hartigan only addresses their preconceived, media-driven notions of black people in minimal phrasing, Christmas demonstrates that he could have handled heavier shares of that material with effervescence as well.

But Morris from America runs into a problem when shying away from more subversive material. It faces the risk of plunging back onto a well-worn road of familiar plot devices, which slow the momentum of the movie. It feels like hearing a cover version of an old song you’ve heard many times before. The artists are talented and the music itself is pretty good, but you can’t help but wonder how much better a more original piece would have been.

Hartigan blankly window-dresses quite a bit. Scenes that have been done to death in other stories, like conversations between Curtis and Morris in which a father sternly but understandingly passes life advice to his son, are treated with a kind of tension, feeling around as if discovering a new frontier of fiction. As a result, they are emphasized as dramatically over-important, which minimizes attention given to the unique qualities of the film’s setting and concepts.

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However, those two-handers with Christmas and Robinson are still fairly enjoyable when taken on the strengths of the actors’ chemistry with one another. Subtext mentioned only in passing – such as the death of Curtis’ wife before the events of the film, leaving him a widower and Morris without a mother – are present at each of their conversations and critical in shaping the evolution of their relationship.

Their interactions feel wholly authentic, rendering some life into even the dullest and most pedestrian of dialogue. Morris from America is at its best when it looks through that perspective. Christmas’ performance allows for this kind of thoroughly enjoyable interaction, not only with Robinson, but also with just about anyone else onscreen. In the end, Hartigan may be unable to elevate his screenplay above its genericized plotting, but he’s infinitely benefitted by the talent at the center of it all.

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