Morris From America (2016)
Written & Directed by Chad Hartigan
13-year-old Morris is an African-American young man living in Germany. His dad is a soccer coach, former player, and his mom passed away a few years prior. Morris did not grow up in Germany, and he is having trouble adjusting to the different culture. His Germany teacher, Inka, suggests he spend time at a community center practicing his language skills and meeting kids his age. Morris reluctantly agrees and immediately becomes infatuated with Katrin, an older girl who teasingly befriends him. Morris doesn’t seem to be meshing with the culture around him, despite his best efforts to explore and absorb. His father also struggles in determining where the line between discipline and freedom lies for his son.
There is a lot this film has going for it when it begins. Craig Robinson as the father has a great dynamic with Morris (Markees Christmas). They open the film listening to old school rap in the father’s effort to “educate” his son on what “real rap music” sounds like. A playful banter ensues with Morris’ critique of what he has heard and the father’s rebuttal. This is around the time the audience is made aware that these black American characters are living in a culture very outside of what we assume is their experience. Germany.
However, we later see Curtis, the father working entirely at ease with his colleagues on the soccer team. He also goes out with them for a drink, and we see a reluctance. This is later revealed not to be rooted in culture, but the grief he is still dealing with in regards to his wife and his new role as a single father. It’s Morris, whom we learn knew his father from a distance back in America, that isn’t sure how he fits into this place and may not want to fit in. Morris does very little to shape himself to the expectations of his peers and remains very true to himself for the remainder of the movie.
I admit this is an incredibly unique structure for a coming of age movie; I can’t think of a film that told this specific story before. Early on there are some exciting, playful moments; Morris visits a castle while listening to music on his iPod and imagines the other tourists and even the stained glass coming to life in rhythm to it. However, that is the last fantastical scene in the movie, which left me wanting because I was interested in seeing a movie with that tone.
Instead, the film ends up being painfully thin, barely developing the intriguing relationships it sets up. I was reminded at the conclusion of family sitcoms because that’s the depth Morris goes to. We’re left with a rushed wrap up and little understanding of what this all means for our protagonist. The worst thing Morris From America does is become a film that is ultimately forgettable. I can’t imagine ever returning to this picture or writing further about it, and I feel disappointed about that fact.
The film touches on the themes of loneliness and cultural divides but never satisfyingly explores them. Instead, the filmmaker brings them up and leaves them to remain undeveloped for the remainder of the movie. I think there are some great angles on the relationship between Morris and Katrin could have been explored from, we never even see his father’s reaction. The German teacher, Inka, feels left on the side to only appear for plot purposes. Morris From America had so much promise but leaves the viewer with not much to think about.