“Forget charming, I’m gangsta”: Morris from America

morris-from-america

Morris from America
Directed by Chad Hartigan
Opens August 19

Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas) is thirteen. When Katrin (Lina Keller) asks his age, though, he tries to pass for fifteen, then fourteen, before settling on his actual number, Almost Famous-style. “This I believe,” Katrin tells him as she walks away, smiling. Katrin is fifteen. She’s also German, and Morris is on her turf: He’s come to live with his father Curtis (Craig Robinson) in Heidelberg, where Curtis coaches soccer. As a black teenager with a New York Yankees hat, he does not particularly fit in. He senses early on, not long after we do, that Katrin may be throwing him some attention at least partially as a way of vexing her mother.

There are only a few memorable supporting characters in Morris from America: Katrin, along with Morris’s college-aged tutor, Inka (Carla Juri from the spirited, disgusting Wetlands). This means the story, such as it is, wears a little thin even over 90 minutes, but it also conveys our hero’s isolation, and keeps the focus on the relationship between Morris and his father, played with relaxed skill by Robinson. Robinson is best known for his slow-burning Daryl on the U.S. version of The Office, and parts great and small in various broad comedies. He’s still funny in Morris—in his first scene, he grounds his son for “liking terrible music” when Morris fails to respond to one of Curtis’s favorite hip-hop tracks—but something about his plainspoken deadpan gives his parental counseling real weight.

There’s similar no-fuss assurance to the writing and direction of Chad Hartigan (This Is Martin Bonner). He’ll send his camera around a schoolyard to get the lay of the land before returning and sticking close to Morris’s point of view. He gets a well-modulated kid-actor performance from Christmas, who’s just about perfect: Surly, scrappy, defiant, excitable, and (occasionally) sweet-natured in just the right measures. A lot of indies mess this up, steering away from cuteness by rendering tweens and teens as deadpan and monotone as possible; Morris from America gets the range of bottled-up teenage emotions right.

The movie doesn’t overplay its culture-clash hand. Most of the conflicts Morris gets into transcend language barriers, and the outsider status he feels at the German rec center where he meets Katrin could happen in America, too. Instead, culture offers potential common ground for Morris, an aspiring rapper, and his dad, who fancied his flow pretty decent back in the day (in one scene, Morris and Katrin listen to an old tape of Curtis, and Hartigan hilariously lets the middling, amateurish sounds continue in the background even as their attention drifts to other matters). The movie has a nice little rebuke to default gangter-ism in rap, which might very well come off as a little prescriptive or condescending from a white filmmaker, if Robinson wasn’t so convincing in his argument that Morris should use rap for self-expression, not talking about fucking two bitches at once. “Forget charming, I’m gangsta,” Morris tells Inka at one point. But no, he’s wrong: Charming is what Morris and this movie are.

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