Despite an organic core of a coming-of-age movie, writer-director Chad Hartigan’s “Morris From America” does its best work with its contrivances.
Like Jason Reitman’s assorted “live read” events — where he puts new spins on other filmmakers’ talents via ironic recasting — “Morris” angles for universality by way of a Mad Lib mishmash of repurposed authenticity.
Hartigan, who is white, grew up in Europe. I can relate — I was a white tween living in Germany what seems like a lifetime ago. Hartigan’s protagonist, Morris (Markees Christmas), is a pudgy, black American teen stranded in Heidelberg, Germany, where his dad Curtis (Craig Robinson) is a soccer coach.
Whereas Hartigan or myself might have interesting stories about our respective experiences, Morris’ adolescent awakening is a veritable Olympic hurdles course: Language, nationality, culture and race are all working against him. And Morris, hating the isolation of his geography and the absence of his departed mother, is content to not even take the leaps to conquer them.
Christmas, who’s new to acting and had never been to Europe before filming, naturally fits the bill as the fish out of water. I know that kid. I kinda, sorta was that kid. So was Hartigan.
Morris’ reluctance in learning German with his tutor Inka (Carla Juri) quickly thaws after catching the eye of his blonde crush Katrin (Lina Keller) at the youth center. Soon enough, he’s trying to impress with his limited rapping skills, fraying his relationship with Curtis while being thrown into a melange of prototypical teenage rites of passage: Drinking, smoking pot and going on a road trip without any grown-ups around.
The added complexities of “Morris” enliven whatever story Hartigan lived. They also benefit from fortunate timing. Right now, the world demands assimilation. In Morris’ cinematic world, Inka and Curtis want Morris to learn the lingo and make friends. In our world a few hundred kilometers west of Heidelberg, the French are policing bathing suits. An ocean west of that, Donald Trump is saying he’ll police everything else. For all its focus as a teen dramedy, “Morris” is a fine treatise on hanging onto your culture, filled to the brim with Morris’ infatuation with hip-hop and the generational clash he and Curtis have.
“Morris” is at its most sincere in exploring the father-son dynamic. As much as Curtis wants to be a disciplinarian and raise Morris a certain way, it just doesn’t work to have the kid grounded and both of them sitting at home, bored. They both face the same social barriers, and they both know the pain of Morris’ mom not being around anymore. Something as simple as grabbing a bite to eat with a friend is limited to a father-son outing given their outsider status — and compounded by Morris’ burgeoning teenage truculence.
But just like in many teens’ lives, the moments in which a parent imparts some sage advice or impassioned anecdote about their own teenhood are fleeting. And the bulk of “Morris” is an assortment of ideas you’ve mostly seen in other similar coming-of-age movies. But the novelty of the embellished, finer points of Morris’ transition to adulthood make Hartigan’s film a worthy exercise in storytelling.
“Morris From America” is rated R. Running time: One hour, 31 minutes. Two and a half stars out of five. Now playing at the Sie FilmCenter in Denver.