Funny enough, but ever since my success with my review of the highly stylized and powerful street-drama Kicks, it seems that I have become the unofficial urban/hip-hop critic of the city of Toronto. Which isn’t a bad thing, especially when you are reviewing some kick ass, cutting edge coming-of-age stories.
Coming-of-age stories are a dime-a-dozen in independent American cinema, let alone for films that have been accepted in the official line-up of the Sundance Film Festival. I mean, Sundance, almost being the unofficial “coming-of-age” film festival, is not only known for its dedication and glorification of youthful coming-of-age stories, but also discovering new, almost obscure talent, both behind the scenes, and in front of the camera. If you don’t believe me, think of Quvenzhané Wallis from Beasts of the Southern Wild, RJ Cyler in last year’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Gabourey Sidibe in Precious and director Damien Chazelle to name a few. Luckily for us, Chad Hartigan’s newest film, Morris From America is a very authentic tale of of an outsider of a very urban-contemporary America, growing up in the very proper and white-washed setting of Germany.
Morris From America begins with three of its most powerful characters; Markees Christmas playing the young Morris Gentry, Craig Robinson as his father, Curtis Gentry, and the powerful and overwhelming music of hip-hop. As Morris rocks his head to The Sun Rises in the East’s (considered one of the quintessential hip-hop albums of all-time) track Come Clean by Jeru The Damaja, Morris complains to his father that the beat is a little slow, it lacks a hook and the song, overall, is very boring. Outraged with his son’s taste in music, Curtis ground Morris for having poor taste in music. Our next shot of Mo in his room, is a tour poster of up and coming rapper from Los Angeles, Schoolboy Q, that hangs at the very centre of his room, showing Mo’s love and appreciate for new age hip-hop. At this exact moment, it becomes quite clear and evident that Mo’s analysis of his father’s song is very much an analogy of Hartigan’s newest film as well as a very clear clash of how the differences of opinions, experiences and tragedy affect two very formidable men following the tragedy of their lead female matriarch.
We never really find out what happens to Mo’s mom throughout the film. Essentially, the tragedy of her absence, although quite pivotal to our main protagonists, isn’t the driving point behind their actions. Sure, there’s a scene where Curtis calls a European phone sex line, one of the many scenes where he finds himself stuck in an empty and cold home, lusting for attention and meaning. Robinson’s longing for love is one of the many factors that make his role as Curtis one of the mot memorable of his career, especially set against that of Mo, whose friendship and crush for his only friend Katrin (Line Keller) is the driving force of Mo’s motivations. Katrin, who sets course a path for Mo that not only allows him to grow up quicker than most thirteen year-olds, but also allows him to experience the stark cultural differences of growing up in a predominantly white Germany, against a childhood and adolescence in urban America.
As the very simple narrative of Morris flows through each and every scene, it seems that writer/director Hartigan is interested in one thing, and one thing only, and that’s the authenticity of his star and his characters and most of all, their raw and highly relatable experiences. During the early drafts, Hartigan had a script in mind that included a white father and son, but it wasn’t until Robinson and Christmas involvement that the characters were changed to a African-American father/son duo, navigating life away from the United States with a very interesting and dynamic one/two punch. Never glorifying or emotionally manipulating the trauma of Curtis’ and Mo’s loss; never romanticizing Katrin and Mo, and never polishing Mo and Curtis’ bonds, Morris From America is your average joe character film tightened by simple and real people narrative choices.
Making his transition in Germany as painless and smooth as possible for his son and himself, Curtis enlists the help of a German student/tutor Inka (Carla Juri). Inka and Mo share some tender scenes of truth and heartache, sometimes simplifying one another’s life through the simple stories surrounded by their love lives. Mo, who has taken a liking to Katrin, discovers aspects of himself he never knew he was capable of; while Inka makes some serious life choices, thanks to the stark truth and frankness of Mo’s young adolescent, real world perspectives, sometimes blending in aspects of an episode of “Kids Say the Darnest Things” for good measure. Luckily for us, the film isn’t without its strong female characters, allowing Inka and Mo’s relationship to progress into the most maternal relationship we get from the film, yet her choices in the film play a very stark bad cop to Mo’s father Curtis, who is sometimes good cop, more often then not, cool cop. Inka provides a much needed female presence in the film, that binds the family-esque flow of Morris.
As Mo embraces his title as school outcast among his peers, Katrin begins taking a liking to him. Katrin, who tests Mo’s limits emotionally and mentally, sets our protagonist up for some very interesting and questionable scenarios, that not only push Mo, but also the audience liking of her, questioning her motives and Mo’s growing patience with a very young and confused little girl. Going along for the ride for the simple fact that Mo has no one else to connect with at school, Mo takes Katrin’s abuse and teasing; enduring moments of extreme embarrassment, overcompensating to impress her and of course, going out of his comfort zone and the rules of the house just to please a girl. “Love make you do some stupid shit”, warns his father, during a lecture back from a little excursion a whiles away from home that not only get Mo in trouble, but luckily enough, provides the audience with one of the most genuine moments of the whole film.
While Morris begins exploring some of Mo’s hobbies further, specifically his rapping for an upcoming talent show at the local youth centre, in hopes of gaining the approval of all his teachers and peers, Morris is stuck on one specific hook of a rap. “Fucking all the bitches, two at a time, all you can get, for just $10.99” as the recites the words from his notebook in front of mirrors and to himself, the line sparks some real-life questions when his father discovers the book when its left behind at Inka’s home. Curtis, who retaliates at Morris, not about the explicit content, but because of the falsity of Mo’s words, his obvious inexperience with women, and most of all, his inability to rap about things that are actually going on with him, in his life, at that moment. “I ain’t mad cause at you for writing those rhymes cause their explicit, I’m mad at you for writing those rhymes cause there bullshit. That’s the best you got? Let Snoop Dogg rap about fucking bitches two at a time, cause he’s done dat shit, you need to rap whats really going on wit you, you feel me? You don’t know shit; and until you know shit, you need to rap about how you don’t know shit, because THAT, is garbage”, exclaims Curtis to Mo, in an attempt for Mo not only to find his own voice within a misogynistic musical culture, but also, within his personal boundaries and morals.
While the majority of the film can be described best as being a heavy drama, Morris isn’t without its true, belly-rumbling comedy, mostly surrounding the very obvious “black sheep” father and son banter. Many uncomfortable, vulgar yet painfully truthful realities of Mo and Curtis’ placement in Germany make for some ridiculously funny moments between them and the German characters around them. Luckily enough, while Hartigan’s script is extremely self aware and tenderly obvious, Hartigan’s carefully placed and simple racial jokes are not only the most honest parts of the film, but play well on very stereotypical tropes of African American culture with grace and poise. Easily, one of the my favourite and most comical moments of the film is the first time Mo is invited to Katrin’s home for the first time. “I hear black people are good dancers. This is true? You don’t dance and you don’t play basketball? So none of the things is true? Do you have a big dick? Is your dick big?”, where Mo replies in shock and utter amazement, “I don’t know?”. Mo, who immediately gets interrupted by Katrin’s mother, who walks in on Mo and Katrin conversing on her bed. Staring at Mo in utter disbelief as she finds him in her daughters room, as she holds her shoes in her hands, for reasons we don’t know, but could easily imagine. Hartigan’s almost nerdy approach to these obvious black-culture jokes provide viewers with some rip-roaring, laugh out loud moments of sincerity and heart.
Morris From America holds its own time and time again for its portrayal of the things people are thinking all the time, but are too scared to say. While it plays around with the stereotype of African-American men having large penis’, being incredible basketball players, and natural born rappers and dancers, the truth of the matter remains that Morris is just an average teenager navigating life in a land where techno and electro swing run the airwaves and nightclub speakers, the girls are as white as milk, and the only reason people know who Jay-Z is, is because he is married to Beyonce.
While this film holds a very Hard R rating, I could easily say this is a family friendly film, despite the hard and very frequent foul language. Sure, Mo and his dad exchange a variety of colourful words, slangs, and phrases between the two of them, but Curtis and Mo’s roll-of-the-tongue dialogue is one of the many reasons why we fall in love with Morris. While many parents may argue that none of their children swear at them, in the year 2016, we all know, as children grow up and are exposed more and more to the real world and crude social-media driven society, this is a bunch of bull. The same could be said with teenagers talking and acting like they are little Casanova’s in school and on the streets. Hartigan, who refused to include any explicit physical interactions between Katrin and Mo, not only holds the film high on the authentic film spectrum, but also keeps the innocence of both Mo and Katrin intact, never growing up each of the characters more than their behaviours show on screen.
While Mo discovers who he truly is, through the many tests of Katrin, to the countless lessons from his father, in the short ninety minute runtime of the film, Mo finally figures it out for himself what it means to be an black African-American living in Germany, what it means to be a teenager living in a foreign country when your heart belongs at home, and most of all, what it means to be Morris. Morris From America is crowd-pleasing filmmaking.
Night Film Reviews: 8 Out of 10 Stars.
What did you think of Morris From America? Happy Father/Son tale with enough originality, or another fumbling coming-of-age indie with too little to say? Leave your comments below.