Movie review: Comedian Craig Robinson terrific in ‘Morris From America’
Great father-and-son stories are so rare that even when a mere good one comes along like “Morris from America,” it’s reason to celebrate. And, fall in love — four times over. That’s because writer-director Chad Hartigan offers up a quartet of characters you can’t help but crush on. Chief among them is Morris, the cherubic 13-year-old African-American kid at the heart of a story that says more about love, race, relationships and the power of rap than any recent movie I’ve seen.
It’s clear from the get-go why Hartigan won the prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival. He encapsulates just about everything that’s good — and bad — about the world in 89 highly entertaining minutes. And what it all boils down to is communication, or — as Morris (sensational newcomer Markees Christmas) is about to learn — knowing yourself before others can really know you. Same goes for his recently widowed father, Curtis (Craig Robinson flashing serious dramatic chops), whose new job as an assistant coach for the Heidelberg soccer team has made him and his son — as he puts it — “the only brothers in town.”
Yes, it’s the old fish-out-of-water scenario, but Hartigan does so much with it that it actually seems fresh. And what makes it so is his deft understanding of how people different than us are quick to make assumptions. For Morris, it’s assuming all Germans are rude, snobbish and unwelcoming. But what’s interesting is that the natives have erroneously prejudged him as a well-endowed, basketball-loving — and just about every other black stereotype you can think up — pot-smoker; when in fact he’s none of those things.
A lot of that is due to the fact Morris doesn’t speak German well, although he’s trying under the tutelage of his sweet, caring teacher, Inka (the adorable Carla Juri). The language he really wants to speak, though, is gangsta rap. He practices it hours on end while his often-absent father is away. His lyrics are crude, if not obscene, but he’s good — very good — at it. If only he could muster the courage — and opportunity — to perform for an audience, preferably one not so into techno, like his peers at the neighborhood center.
There’s a girl, of course. Isn’t there always in these stories? Her name is Katrin, a willowy heartbreaker two years Morris’ senior. She defies the other kids and takes a burgeoning interest in the new kid in town. What the instantly smitten Morris doesn’t quite understand is that Katrin (played by lovely femme fatale in training Lina Keller) is the worst kind of tease. She has a deejay boyfriend who is in college, but that doesn’t stop her from leading Morris on. Some will say Katrin is cruel. But what she really is is real. I know I met many a Katrin in my youth and have the scarred heart to prove it.
And even though it’s a bittersweet romance, it exudes charm and feeling, qualities enhanced by a free-and-easy chemistry between Keller and Christmas. But the boy-girl aspect can’t match the power of the growing bond between Morris and his still grieving dad. They speak the same language, even share a particular love for Biggie and Tupac, but neither really understands what the other is going through — mainly because they never really talk. But when they do, during a long drive back home from Frankfort, it’s electrifying.
Robinson, in particular, is riveting in telling a moving story about how he met Morris’ German-born mother when he was an impetuous college student who traveled from America to be with her but found out it was just as hard to be understood in Germany as it was back in the Bronx. It’s a moment that has you on the verge of tears — until the very end of the scene, when Robinson delivers the funniest line of the movie. It’s a very special moment, as is a brilliant scene in which Morris uses a pillow, a pair of his sweatpants and one of Katrin’s sweaters to fashion a crude facsimile of his love to both dance with and ravish in rapturous effigy.
The faux seduction is set to an equally explicit hip-hop tune that might be a tad too graphic for prudish ears. In fact, the entire movie is littered with F-bombs and other colorful language. Some have criticized Hartigan for being so loose with the four-letter words. But the irony is that those are also words that are universally understood in a pejorative language we all share. That Morris must keep falling back on them reflects badly on him. But if that’s so, what does that say about the rest of us? Not good, and Hartigan makes it sting.
“Morris From America”
Cast includes Craig Robinson, Markees Christmas, Carla Juri and Lina Keller.
(R for teen drug use and partying, sexual material, brief nudity, and language throughout.)