Review: Morris from America (Sundance)
PLOT: A thirteen-year-old African-American boy (Markees Christmas) living in Heidelberg, Germany with his widowed soccer coach father (Craig Robinson) tries to fit in with the local kids and win over a rebellious classmate.
REVIEW: MORRIS FROM AMERICA is a nice little Sundance sleeper. It's the kind of cute comedy big studios have mostly abandoned in favour of flashier fare, leaving the indie world to pick up the slack as far as coming of age comedy goes. Ten years ago, this could have been a mainstream studio film, but in our current climate it becomes a micro budget indie that hopefully will spark some interest through good word of mouth.
Some may compare this to last year's breakout, DOPE, but this is a far more modest slice-of-life comedy. Morris's growing pains are easily relatable, in that he struggles to relate to his nice-guy dad (a sympathetic Craig Robinson) who, nonetheless, is rarely around due to his status as a single dad and his job. Poor Morris really finds himself in the middle of a culture shock upon his arrival in Germany, with him not only being the only black kid, but also the only English speaking American.
Director-writer Chad Hartigan has made a sweet little film, with the central trio of relationships, all centering around Morris, having an impact. The most charming of all of these are his interactions with his dad, with the two bonding over hip-hop and their shared status of being seemingly the only two black dudes in the city. Robinson is extremely winning as the dad, and his chemistry with Christmas, who effortlessly carries the movie on his back (he's in virtually every scene) is top-notch.
The other important relationships for Morris are the friendship with his German tutor (WETLANDS's Carla Juri) and a local, fifteen-year-old rebel (Lina Keller) who seems to like him only due to how the German teachers and parents seem to feel uncomfortable with him, having no idea how to relate to this African-American boy.
While Hartigan is maybe laying it on a little thick by making all the German classmates and teachers so oblivious to their racial and cultural insensitivity, it's made up for in his relationship with Juri. A bright university student, she's the only one besides Morris's dad who seems to really a have his best interests at heart, but even they have their differences. One really sharp scene has her discovering some racy rap lyrics Morris's jotted down, and her overacting by telling his father that the lyrics are misogynist and violent. It's a relatively subtle bit where she gets a dressing-down by Robinson, who makes her realize she really knows nothing about Morris and her culture, and it's a respectful clash that feels relevant considering how parental watch groups still attack hip hop (although Robinson himself calls his son out for being misogynist and immature).
It's kind of refreshing to see a good-natured comedy that also squeezes in a little social commentary, but again it's sad this has become a strictly indie domain. Even TV sitcoms managed to do this a generation ago, but now everything is so watered-down. While a small film, MORRIS FROM AMERICA does indeed feel like a comedy with a brain, and most importantly, it's often funny but in a subtle, true-to-life way. It's a charming little movie and hopefully one that will find an audience.