Writer-director Chad Hartigan’s Sundance darling, Morris from America, is a small film with a deceptively simple premise: A young African-American from the Bronx suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous adolescence in Heidelberg, Germany. As it turns out, what could’ve amounted to little more than a rote exercise in fish-out-of-water antics is, in fact, an effective and moving portrayal of the existential dilemmas inherent to impending adulthood.
Hartigan’s script hits the compulsory coming-of-age notes, but does so without the melodrama such undertakings typically entail. His characters are relatable and well-rounded with a depth and dimensionality that defy the film’s 91-minute running time. Hartigan passes up the easy jokes in favor of a more nuanced sense of humor, and the script is funnier for the effort. But Morris is not, strictly speaking, a comedy. It’s a charming and endearing exploration of identity — and the suffering that establishing a genuine one so often entails.
What works in Morris’ script is the distinct relatability of its characters’ struggles and the empathy it manages to build with the audience over the course of the film. The story never delves into saccharine self-indulgence, instead tugging at the heartstrings without becoming trite or hackneyed. Who can’t identify with feeling like a complete outsider or having an unrequited crush on the wrong person? Morris from America manages to touch on such ideas without making them feel clichéd. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment, however, is its deft handling of the casual racism still endemic on both sides of the pond. As Morris’ peers try to coax him into a pickup basketball game strictly on the basis of his ethnicity, the movie’s points about ignorance and prejudice are raised much more effectively than would have been the case if the blatant bigotry of “German d—heads” (as Morris puts it) were more egregious.
But Morris is not just about the challenges confronted by its title character, it’s about the way we are defined by our environment as well as our choices. As such, the cast faces a particularly difficult challenge as well. Thankfully, the central performances are strong across the board. Karla Juri is endearingly ineffectual as Morris’ 20-something German tutor-armchair therapist, and Lina Keller is both engaging and appalling as Morris’ older love interest (and occasional tormentor). But the best scenes in this film belong to the interactions between Markees Christmas as Morris and Craig Robinson as widowed dad Curtis. Making his feature debut, Christmas shows remarkable restraint and subtlety for a child actor, and fans of Robinson’s deadpan comedic delivery will find it equally effective for more dramatic purposes. There is no ambiguity about the difficulties faced by these two characters, but Christmas and Robinson never allow the slightest hint of self-pity to creep into their performances, leaving the audience with the impression that this father-son bond is strong enough to overcome any obstacle.
Hartigan’s stylistic acumen is as distinctive as his characters, with his visual palette aided significantly by location shoots in Heidelberg. As a director, Hartigan has grown significantly since his last feature, the decidedly minimalistic This is Martin Bonner (2013). But, like his title character, Hartigan could be described as having entered an awkward phase as a filmmaker. Some of his stylistic flourishes — a hip-hop-driven fantasy sequence in a museum and a few obtrusive iris wipes — feel a bit forced. Minor shortcomings aside, Hartigan’s eye as director is unique, and his willingness to take risks promises greater things to come.
When I first learned of this film’s superficially sentimental storyline, I anticipated a rare misstep in studio A24’s decision to distribute. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Morris from America fits squarely within the wheelhouse of the studio’s outstanding offerings over the last few years. Morris is a film that bridges divides both cultural and expectational with a rare blend of pathos and perspective that challenges preconceptions and defies clichés. Like the phenomenally good Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Morris is a film with surprising heart and a charismatic young lead who plays it straight instead of veering into precociousness. It’s a movie that I never expected to enjoy, but one that I recommend without reservation. Rated R for teen drug use and partying, sexual material, brief nudity and language throughout.
Opens Friday at The Grail Moviehouse