Morris From America

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Markees Christmas in Morris From America - 13-year-old Morris, a hip-hop loving American, moves to Heidelberg, Germany, with his father. In this completely foreign land, he falls in love with a local girl, befriends his German tutor-turned-confidant, and attempts to navigate the unique trials and tribulations of adolescence.
"It is Hartigan's ability to deal in specifics that mark his films out from the crowd."

Chad Hartigan's This Is Martin Bonner made a big impression when it screened in the Next section at Sundance in 2013 and with his return to the festival he makes the step up to the US Dramatic Competition, where it is most certainly a contender. One minute with Morris (newcomer-to-watch Markees Christmas) tells you he is undoubtedly from America, with his hip-hop street talk and baseball cap stylings. What we quickly discover, however, is that he is not in America and has plenty of other reasons to stick out in his new school in Heidelberg, Germany - not least because he is a big lad and, most significantly, black in a sea of lily white students.

Like Bonner, this is a story of learning to communicate and finding your place in the world. Hartigan likes people and has an eye for the brighter side of human nature, so unlike many coming-of-age films, 13-year-old Morris' problems do not lie at home. There, he practises his "sick flow" with his dad (Craig Robinson), the two of them grown close after the death of his mum. The film is at its best in the scenes where the two banter back and forth like a pair of rap battle pros, Hartigan's scripting finding a natural rhythm that allows for the humour and heart of the dad and son dynamic to shine out. He doesn't short change dad, either, crafting his character in almost as much detail as Morris and giving Robinson a role to get his teeth into; he deserves more like this.

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If things are sweet at home, Morris is having less success in school, facing both latent and more overt racism - from the ignorant-but-harmless suggestion he should be a good dancer who is hung like the proverbial to a youth leader who automatically assumes he smokes pot. "I don't need friends," he tells his English tutor (Carla Juri), but he is quietly developing a serious crush of 15-going-on-30-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller).

Katrin is a teenage tease, attracted by Morris' sweet 'otherness' but also desperate to be an adult, hanging out with her older boyfriend and equating being grown up with taking ecstasy. As Morris stretches the own bounds of his childhood, it's inevitable that life lessons will be learnt but it is Hartigan's ability to deal in specifics that mark his films out from the crowd.

Even his smaller characters feel refreshingly alive, with their own arcs and development and the writer/director lets his playful side show, particularly in a scene where Morris, on a trip to Heidelberg Castle, imagines the visitors and castle adornments busting some moves to the hip-hop he is listening to (one of many catchy 'tracks' composed by Keegan DeWitt) and in a 'wet dream' fantasy sequence that is sweetly moving. In short, he keeps things real. As Morris' dad might say: "You're grounded."

Reviewed on: 25 Jan 2016
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A 13-year-old American comes of age in Germany.

Festivals:

Sundance 2016

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