‘Morris from America’ comes of age, globally

Morris from America

FilmScene — opens Friday, Sept. 9 at 1:30 p.m.

Markees Christmas in a still from 'Morris from America'
Markees Christmas in a still from ‘Morris from America’

In a lot of ways, Germany is just like us. About half our language we stole from them; we have both embraced immigration as generally enriching, but with very similar misgivings; their Holocaust is a lot like our slavery; we both love sausage; they beat us on the electing a woman to run the country thing, but we are likely correcting that later this fall. We both love basketball and, for a few embarrassing years in the mid 1980s, we both felt that Spandau Ballet played music that reasonable people should pay money to own.

So really it should not surprise us that so much of our own culture is recognizable in Chad Hartigan’s recent film Morris from America. Morris tells the story of a 13-year-old African-American kid from New York who has been moved to Heidelberg, Germany by his father, a professional soccer coach. The film is about dealing with the social pressures of ordinary adolescence, but in an unordinary and foreign place. It may take a nation of millions to hold Morris back, but in Germany’s case, it’s working.

For Morris, charmingly played by Markees Christmas, this is because Germany is actually completely different from the U.S. Our language probably still owes more to Latin than it does to Germanic Anglo-Saxon, and our street slang would be unrecognizable to most Germans; the U.S. is a nation of immigrants whereas Germany is just now figuring out what immigration means to the indigenous population; the Holocaust and slavery are really pretty different. Germany still seems to embrace bad dance music, and, OK, we do all love sausage and basketball, but, if current polls are correct, Angela Merkel will likely be out of power for most of Hillary Clinton’s potential presidency.

Morris’ prospects in dealing with such differences begin to improve when, after getting kicked out of a youth center talent show, he meets Katrin, played by Lina Keller. Katrin is sort of an ice queen, and not in the good way — a little out of his league and a little too interested in party drugs, dating older boys and treating Morris more as a curiosity or a token of cultural cachet than as a boyfriend. Her talent, as she tells him from the start, is “leaving.” Needless to say, young Morris is highly interested, though thoroughly in over his head.

Christmas’ casting in the title role is something of a rebuke to people like me who generally believe that Hollywood does not work hard enough to find new African-American actors to play important roles and instead just calls Morgan Freeman’s agent or rewrites the part for a white guy. The casting call for the role of Morris must have looked something like this: African American actor somewhere between 10 and 15 years old who looks like a slightly taller Gary Coleman, could putatively share DNA with Craig Robinson and can rap. The weight requirement alone would eliminate most aspirants. But Christmas is great as a “fish out of water” character trying both to fit in with his European surroundings, and not look like he is trying very hard to do so. You know, being a teenager.

Unsurprisingly, I like Craig Robinson better as the tread-upon, middle class everyman than I do watching him travel through time in hot tubs. In Morris, he is quite good as the ambivalent father, trying to make a better life for his family while still keeping his son versed in the fundamentals of black American identity. Grounding your kid for liking bad music is probably not good parenting but it may be excellent cultural stewardship. A lot of this film is about the music, since that is Morris’ primary tool for staying grounded and maintaining connection with American culture. Much of the soundtrack is original, written by Keegan DeWitt and rapped by Jay Stone. Elsewhere on the soundtrack, if you harbor any doubts that German pop music is terrible, this film will — deliberately — put those to rest.

Markees Christmas and Lina Keller in a still from 'Morris from America'
Markees Christmas and Lina Keller in a still from ‘Morris from America’

On one hand, Morris from America is a high school, coming-of-age, talent show movie. Everything it can teach us, we have already seen in films ranging from Sixteen Candles to Juno to Napoleon Dynamite. On the other hand, this is a film about the globalized world and how it affects the individual families and individual humans who are forced to cope with new types of uncertainty. Robinson has a really great monologue near the end of the movie in which he describes his voyage to Germany, his devotion to Morris’ mother and his own struggles to provide better opportunities for his son — in other words, that he went through the same struggles that we see Morris having now. Then, he tells his son that despite all that, he’s “grounded like a motherfucker.”

Morris from America opens at FilmScene on Friday, Sept. 9 with showtimes at 1:30, 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30. It runs through Thursday, Sept. 15. Tickets are $6.50-9; the film is rated R.

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