If “Morris From America” is anything, it’s charming. With a palette swathed in colors reminiscent of an Ikea showroom, the coming-of-age film follows thirteen-year-old Morris (newcomer Markees Christmas) and his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson, “Hot Tub Time Machine”) as they navigate life as expats in Heidelberg, Germany.
Christmas plays the titular Morris with a subtlety rarely found in child actors. He lets the audience in on the innate contradictions of adolescence — in one moment, he can be both insightful and clueless, confident and confused.
At the prompting of his German tutor (Carla Juri, “Wetlands”), Morris joins the local youth center, where he meets Katrin (newcomer Lina Keller), an older girl who befriends Morris seemingly just to bully him. Morris’s futile pursuit of Katrin is the center point around which the film is grounded. Unlike the average coming-of-age film, Morris doesn’t get the girl and the movie benefits because of it.
While Katrin shares the most screen time with Morris, it’s the relationship between Morris and his father that’s the richest and most appealing. The film opens with the two arguing about the necessity of a hook in a rap song. They disagree on almost everything from flow to curfew, but at the end of the day they need each other with an intensity unmatched in the rest of the film. Morris wants Katrin, but needs Curtis.
What Hartigan does a wonderful job of illustrating is the symmetry of their two lives. Both are shot from the same angle, sitting alone at the dining room table — Morris with a peanut butter, jelly and potato chip sandwich and a porn magazine, and Curtis with a steak and an imaginary conversation with his dead wife. The two scenes work in tandem because they highlight the deep loneliness and sense of isolation that color both characters’ lives. Through magazines and imagination, both men are desperate for human connection. The irony (and, sadly, the realism) comes in the fact that despite their desperation, they cannot connect with one another.
Life is hard for a kid from the Bronx trying to tackle adolescence in Heidelberg. And Hartigan does not shy away from addressing the day-to-day racism that Morris has to put up with. He’s constantly fielding questions about his basketball skills, possible drug trafficking and sexual promiscuity (at the ripe age of thirteen when sex is so, so painful to talk about). These moments help solidify not only the reality of small-town Germany, but also the degree to which Morris is unlike anyone else around him. And how that difference is the root of much of his, and most likely also his father’s, loneliness. At the end of the day, he and his father are, as Curtis puts it, “the only Brothers in Heidelberg.”
“Morris From America” is almost perfect. There’s heart and there’s charm and just enough edge. But it fails to find the type of resolution you’d expect. Morris and Curtis end the film just as alone, just as adrift as they were at the start. It’s realistic, perhaps, that monumental change cannot be made in 90 minutes of storytelling, but it makes the billing of the film as a coming-of-age movie hard to fully believe. Morris is the right age to “come of age,” but it’s hard to tell if he really does.
Steeped with loneliness and pulsating with heart and hip hop, “Morris From America,” despite its shortcomings, is a beautiful testament to the heartbreaking weight of adolescence.