Morris from America Review: A (Mostly) Fresh Take on The Coming-of-Age Film

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Morris from America‘s strongest quality is how it uses its diversity in a location where diversity is less than familiar. You’ve seen this type of coming-of-age story before, where an awkward young teen is a fish out of water in an exciting new place to explore. But in this case, the title gives away some importance the film carries with it. Morris (Markees Christmas) is in fact from America, but his story as an African-American in Germany is very different from the various version of this film that starred a young white male. Theoretically, these two versions of this story and this character both equally represent the wide variety of cultures in the United States. But, as hopefully everyone who watches movies is aware, Hollywood has a pretty big diversity problem, one this film works to remedy.

And that’s when Morris from America stands out the most. Morris’ crush, Katrin (Lina Keller), asks Morris to confirm what she’s heard about black guys’ manhood. When the smoldered remains of a joint are found at school, Morris is the first person the teacher questions. Morris is the only non-white person amongst his peers, the effect of which the film wonderfully illustrates without being overbearing. The film is still very much a by-the-numbers coming of age story.

Writer-director Chad Hartigan does a lot to imbue his own aesthetic, with the help of a truly killer soundtrack. The first half is littered with shots straight out of a hip hop video, sometimes even bordering on surrealism. But even these moments feel a bit too familiar to Jonathan Levin’s seminal The Wackness. Hartigan appears to be showing restraint in his musical cues, but more fully embracing them would have made for a much more original work.

That said, there’s a reason so many coming-of-age indies are made following the same or similar story beats. The formula works because it’s intrinsically human to grow up. Our connection to our own paths to adulthood are what makes these stories not just accessible but lovable. Just this year, we’ve seen Little MenHunt for the WilderpeopleKing Jack, and Sing Street (the best of the bunch) achieve a similar quality. But then none of them feature the voice of an adolescent black male, which is one reason Morris from America doesn’t feel as redundant as it could have.

Yet there’s still another secret weapon I haven’t talked about yet, and that’s Craig Robinson. The Office and Hot Tub Time Machine alum brings his A-game here, showing us for the second time this summer (the first being his cold guest stint on Mr. Robot) that he’s ready to push his career past his typecast. Gently commanding the screen whenever he’s on as Morris’ father, Robinson warms up the film and delivers a fresh take on the father-son dynamic.

So even when the film walks the line of redundancy, it still boasts an emotional core that can carry it through to the end. The film is, overall, satisfying, which won’t garner it any attention far beyond its initial release, but makes for a pleasant watch anyway. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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