Earlier this year, I attended the Sundance Film Festival for the very first time, and one of the films I was most looking forward to was Morris From America. But with so many films to cram into such a small window – I was only in Park City for the festival’s opening weekend – there were a number of conflicts to schedule around, and Morris From America was one of the unfortunate casualties. Seven months later, writer-director Chad Hartigan’s brilliantly conceived coming-of-age tale is finally making its way to theaters and VOD, and I’m happy to report that it was worth the wait.
Thirteen-year-old Morris (newcomer Markees Christmas) has just relocated to a small German town, where father Curtis (Craig Robinson) has accepted a coaching position with the local soccer club. As “the only brothers in Heidelberg,” adjusting to the local culture feels like a monumental task – especially for Morris, who fancies himself a burgeoning star of the hip-hop world. When he meets and falls for a free-spirited, rebellious fifteen-year-old named Katrin (Lina Keller), Morris decides the only way to win her affection – and stand up to the affluent white bullies who regard their new black classmate as little more than a novelty – is to showcase his freestyle prowess in the local talent show.
While this event would likely serve as the climax in most films of this ilk, Hartigan instead opts to use the hilariously profane performance as a catalyst, taking an unexpected detour and sending Morris on an entirely different journey than we expect. On the surface, Morris may seem like he’s too cool for school, but the truth of the matter is that he’s constantly focused on the image he presents to his peers, and worried they’ll be able to see right through the façade. It’s difficult enough for a teenager to figure out where he fits into the world at large, but the confusion of being in a foreign place, and constantly subjected to scrutiny – most of it born out of casual racism – only adds to the pressure.
Christmas, a non-professional actor making his feature film debut, is one of the brightest young talents to emerge in recent memory. Despite his lack of experience in front of the camera, he tackles the role of Morris like a seasoned veteran, delivering a crowd-pleasing performance that should have audiences grinning ear-to-ear. And for once not being regulated to the role of scene-stealing sidekick, Robinson turns in some of his best work as the grieving father – he’s recently widowed, but the film leaves the circumstances shrouded in ambiguity – trying to connect with his son. The opening sequence, where Curtis and Morris discover their fundamental differences of opinion on the subject of hip-hop, is an incredibly charming look inside their relationship, but Robinson’s natural comedic ability doesn’t prevent him from laying down the law when Morris steps out of line.
Far removed from The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me and the more “classic” coming-of-age films, Morris From America bravely blazes its own trail to give us something that feels fresh and original. Hartigan obviously has a healthy respect for the rules of the genre, but much like his protagonist, he knows that some rules need to be broken in order to figure out who you really are. And if Morris From America is truly representative of who Hartigan is as a filmmaker, then we can’t wait to get to know him even better.