One of the big hits of Sundance in the U.S., Morris from America is a fun, jaunty little affair that threatens to build into something more memorable than it ends up being.
Morris (Markees Christmas) is a thirteen-year-old struggling to fit in. It’s not entirely unsurprising given that he’s the only black boy in a small German town, and doesn’t even speak the language yet. His father Curtis (Craig Robinson) is bringing Morris up on his own, having relocated to Germany after his professional football playing days were over. The pair have a great relationship, bonding over rap music over all else, even if their styles are freestyle versus oldskool.
It’s not gone unnoticed to Curtis, though, that his son is fast approaching a difficult age – but in an effort to be open and honest with Morris, there is a danger that his son will be pushed away. Complicating matters is a friendly language tutor (Carla Juri), who thinks she is helping but is only adding to the youngsters problems. Hoping to find a way of integrating better, Morris attends a youth centre but struggles to make acquaintances. Eventually he strikes up a friendship with local girl Katrin (Lina Keller), who is in with the cool kids. She drinks, smokes and takes drugs, but she’s also fascinating.One day, when his dad is out of town, Morris heads off to Frankfurt with Katrin to watch a DJ perform. It ends up being a big night for the amateur rapper as he not only has to take to the stage and perform in front of a crowd for the first time, but also has to face up to his feelings for his friend.
The coming-of-age parts of Morris from America are all well handled. Sure, they’re not original; showing some interest in the exciting loner, yet coupled with her own desire for an older man who rides a motorbike, Katrin makes for a crude caricature of a teenager coming to terms with her passions, but they don’t ever step into the territory of cliché.
The problem is in what one assumes is the “big picture”. Given where we are in the world today, this is somehow a film about identity and the place of an outsider in Europe that ends up feeling strangely irrelevant. There is little done to make this movie feel bigger than the sum of its parts. Admittedly the parts are very good indeed, with Robinson showing off a dramatic side to go with his well-known comedic persona. Curtis’ crushing loneliness parallels that of his son, and in turn causes both of them more grief. When he finally tells of how he misses his wife, who has passed away, Morris also learns about his parents properly for the first time. It’s a brilliant scene full of great direction, smart dialogue and outstanding performances.
We’ve seen the young love story done better in recent years, however. When Morris has his heart broken, we get to see it as merely a stepping stone to bigger and potentially better things. This, of course, can be a wonderfully uplifting message if we are fully invested in the character’s journey, but it feels a little underwhelming in what could end up being no more than a snapshot moment. Some of the editing choices also lead you to believe that this is meant to be a throwaway film with little focus on what is going on in the rest of the world.
Fortunately nothing undoes the great work by the actors on-screen, who remain fully committed to a gentle indie that promises more to come from all those involved.