Sundance 2016: Morris from America, by David Bax
Chad Hartigan’s Morris from America, being the story of a young African-American teen (Markees Christmas as Morris) living in Heidelberg, Germany with his widower father (Craig Robinson), is certainly novel in its premise. But after that novelty wears off, what remains is a by-the-numbers coming of age movie.
Morris has only recently moved to Germany and, even with making exceptions for his shaky familiarity with the language, he’s having trouble fitting in. Most of his time is spent with his dad or with the college student (Carla Juri) who is teaching him to speak German. When he develops a crush on the local bad girl (Lina Keller), however, he begins to venture outside his comfort zone to both good and bad results.
It’s hard to imagine that this is the same Hartigan who made the intimate and quietly profound This Is Martin Bonner. Here, his camera moves more and his cuts come faster, as befits his much younger protagonist, but Hartigan seems to have lost some of himself in the process of ramping up. When a Steadicam shot glides and swerves through a park full of skateboarding and hoops-shooting kids, it’s dynamic but it’s also expected. If this is Hartigan’s first step toward becoming a journeyman, it will be a sad loss.
What Morris does have going for it is its cast. In their supporting roles, Juri is exactly the kind of teacher to whom a thirteen-year-old boy might open up and Keller possesses the precise popular girl charm that lets you see why people let her get away with being so mean. But the film revolves around Christmas and Robinson, who are terrific both on their own (Morris’ triumphant moment in the spotlight is just as much a victory for Christmas) and especially in the scenes they share, where it’s easy to believe they are father and son.
Still, the chemistry and skill of the two leads can’t help them when we get to the obligatory heartwarming finale, a standard heartfelt pep talk from man to boy. It’s the kind of workmanlike lightweight uplift that has been selling movie tickets for a century but it stings when we know how much Hartigan is capable of.