Saturday, March 11, 2017

Morris from America

MORRIS FROM AMERICA (Chad Hartigan, 2016)

Relocating to Heidelberg, Germany with his soccer coach father Curtis (Craig Robinson) isn’t easy for thirteen-year-old Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas) in MORRIS FROM AMERICA. While his dad tries his best to keep his spirits up, Morris has no friends and just a modest grasp on the different language. His tutor Inka (Carla Juri) suggests he spend some time at the youth center to meet people and work on his German in a social setting.

Being an African-American--not to mention the only person of color--marks him as an outsider from the other teens. His aloofness doesn’t help either. Fifteen-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller) shows some friendliness toward Morris, although she also sends a number of mixed messages. Desperate for a closer connection with anyone, especially a girl, Morris latches onto Katrin like a life preserver even though it’s unclear if she’s toying with him.

MORRIS FROM AMERICA is a fish-out-of-water tale and coming-of-age story, with the greater emphasis on the protagonist’s first steps on a journey toward growing up. Both scenarios require learning how to translate, be it a foreign language or social cues. Morris is doubly disadvantaged in that he must navigate an unfamiliar culture while searching for his sense of self too. As such, he’s more susceptible to following the crowd. Writer-director Chad Hartigan is perceptive in developing a situation in which a basically good kid might find trouble by virtue of being lonely.

As played by Christmas, Morris is endearing without ever seeming pathetic or stupid. There’s vicarious joy in seeing him light up when Morris receives the kind of attention he desires and pain when intuiting how he misreads people and then puts up buffers in response to actions that hurt him. Christmas invests Morris with pride and emotional intelligence even as he is clumsy in interpersonal communication. He indicates Morris’ mental calculations on the spot of whether he should hold back or not in the scenarios he faces. It’s a canny performance that reveals the child Morris still is and the adult he imagines himself as but is not yet equipped to be.

Robinson doesn’t receive a lot of screen time in MORRIS FROM AMERICA, but he makes the most of what he gets. He shows Curtis to be a loving father who can be uncertain how best to deal with the adolescent in his midst. Curtis is more comfortable with being in Germany, yet as a widower he’s also undergoing an adjustment made harder with a son at a transitional age. Robinson occupies the space where he can seem like the cool dad but has no problem responsibly exerting his power as a parent. He expresses that he understands what his son is going through, especially with what he chooses to address directly. Still, he doesn’t shy away from punishing Morris as necessary. Robinson’s performance is affectionate and knowing. He’s the heart of a forgiving film that observes the humor and frustration of being a teenager.

Grade: B

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