After the emotional nuance and beautifully drawn characters of This Is Martin Bonner, writer-director Chad Hartigan’s follow-up film can’t help but feel slightly disappointing. A perfectly likable coming-of-age drama that’s always enjoyable but rarely transcendent, Morris From America inadvertently illustrates what a gem Martin Bonner was: It’s damn hard to craft intimate tales that feel both so precise and yet so universal at the same time. Morris further cements Hartigan’s talent, but it also demonstrates that it’s not effortless or automatic.
The movie stars newcomer Markees Christmas as Morris, a 13-year-old black youth who’s moved to the German town of Heidelberg with his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), who’s taken a job as a coach on a local soccer club. (Morris’s mom died, apparently some time ago.) Father and son are close, but they’re both having a tough time adjusting to their new environment, not just because of the language barrier but because theirs are the only black faces they see.
Especially after growing up in New York, Morris finds Germany to be an alien land that’s not overly welcoming. (The white kids in his class are confused why he doesn’t like basketball, assuming he adheres to every stereotype they know about black Americans.) Soon, though, Morris befriends a beautiful, flirtatious classmate named Katrin (Lina Keller). They have a teasing rapport, but Morris thinks there might be more to it, even though he’s a virgin and she seems far more experienced.
In Martin Bonner, Hartigan’s second feature and an audience award-winner in Sundance’s NEXT section in 2013, the filmmaker took a potentially clichéd setup—a flawed older man (Paul Eenhoorn) trying to make sense of his life—and made it breathe. With Morris, Hartigan struggles to bring freshness to another type of familiar story.
The movie’s one novel wrinkle is the fact that this is an African-American family setting down roots in Germany, and this provides some of the best moments as we watch the culture clash reflected in this father-and-son relationship. Subtly, Hartigan probes the small fissures forming between Curtis and his boy. Some of them are amusingly minor—Morris loves Jay-Z and Mos Def and doesn’t appreciate his pop’s love of old-school hip-hop—but others conspire to drive tiny but possibly permanent wedges between them.
Hartigan is proving to be a master of the minute observation, wringing truth out of casual, even mundane interactions. And Robinson is an important collaborator in selling these moments, playing Curtis as somebody who wants to be Morris’s buddy as well as his dad. We start to understand why: He’s still reeling from the loss of his wife and desperately needs the boy to be onboard with this European adventure. Eventually, Morris reveals that Curtis has a personal connection to Germany, which partly explains why he’d pick up everything and move there, but on his friendly-but-anxious face, we sense all the risks that are being taken on his part. In addition, Curtis knows that Morris is reaching puberty, which brings up a whole slew of challenges for a single parent whose own life is deeply in flux. Robinson does a fine job negotiating Curtis’s personal travails: While the movie is told from his son’s perspective, we see the loneliness and frustration of this man quietly pouring out.
What’s less convincing is the film’s main story. Listening to hip-hop on his earbuds while walking through town, Morris likes to fancy himself an ill freestyle rapper, spitting gangster lyrics that are merely a drab carbon copy of the bitches-and-hoes ethos of rhymers like Snoop Dogg. Morris is, in part, a personal journey for Morris to shed his faux tough-guy persona in order to grow up and face the adolescent fears he’s using hip-hop to hide behind. But this journey is orchestrated through his platonic relationship with Katrin, a mysterious beauty who transfixes him, even if he’s never quite sure if she actually likes him or merely finds him an exotic amusement. Their scenes together hew too closely to the standard coming-of-age romance, and while Hartigan is certainly a more acute, sensitive chronicler of teen anxiety than most, these characters feel more cleverly constructed than richly detailed or poignantly human.
Plus, Morris can tend toward cutesy gimmicks that undercut the naturalism Hartigan achieves otherwise. Whether it’s Morris imagining that everybody at a museum is bobbing their heads to his music—even the paintings on the wall—or the usage of slow-motion shots meant to crystallize the kid’s swooning infatuation for Katrin, Hartigan lurches toward the whimsical in ways that feel formulaic. In movies as delicate as the ones that Hartigan makes, execution is everything, and Morris’s false beats end up sticking out more as a result.
If Robinson is the film’s high point—his character delivers a speech near the end that’s so casually terrific it only emphasizes the piercing specificity that’s missing elsewhere—then Christmas is a respectable second place. His is a more internal performance—even more than Robinson’s—as we witness a scared kid learning to stop being tough and allowing himself to simply feel. (In another of the movie’s so-so through-lines, Morris has the opportunity to show off his rhyming skills at different venues, his growing lyrical complexity meant to mirror his personal evolution, and Christmas displays all the budding confidence of a young man coming into his own, even if he’s never going to be the most verbose, effusive person.)
Katrin is an intentionally enigmatic figure, and so Keller plays her with a far-off look in her eyes, a hint that the free-spirited character is already glancing down the road for the next adventure. But the young actress never quite captivates, never makes Katrin so bewitching that we understand why Morris goes through what he does in this film for her. As for Carla Juri, she’s exactly right as Inka, a college student who’s tutoring Morris on his German. Serving as a safe sounding board for Morris, Inka is friendly and sympathetic, and their scenes together—although, again, nothing we haven’t seen before in this sort of film—have a lovely warmth to them. That’s the same feeling much of Morris From America exudes: It’s a heartfelt, inviting film, and if it attracts more people to Hartigan’s movies, perhaps one shouldn’t nitpick too strenuously.
Director: Chad Hartigan
Writer: Chad Hartigan
Starring: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Carla Juri, Lina Keller, Jakub Giersza?, Levin Henning
Release Date: Premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.