Audiences love a good coming-of-age story, thanks to the heady nostalgia that fills our empty, adult-life cups. Take Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America, for example. We’ve seen pre-pubescent characters reach maturation epiphanies before, but what about a gangster-rapping 13-year-old who’s forced to live out his NYC street dreams in a small German town? Same principles, same arcs, but Hartigan mines a funky-fresh new delivery that’s worth each dope rhyme and awkward embrace, unique in setup, yet familiar in comfort. The hallmarks of a stylish coming-of-age story worth your time and tears.
The driving force of Hartigan’s real-talk family piece is the father/son relationship established between Craig Robinson and little man Markees Christmas. Robinson plays Curtis Gentry, a European soccer coach currently working in Heidelberg, while Christmas acts as his son – Morris – who’s forced to navigate childhood in a completely foreign land. Morris’ German tutor, Inka (Carla Juri), urges her pupil to try and make some same-age friends, which leads him to a youth group where local teens spend time playing sports and exploring their interests. This is where Morris takes a liking to Katrin (Lina Keller), a blonde smoker with a little bit of a wild streak. Instead of seeing movies with his father like usual, Morris starts going to parties and staying out past curfew, as the boy slowly learns teachings that only life can illuminate. Who said being a fish-out-of-water is a bad thing?
Morris From America represents parenthood with a mutually respectful understanding, as Robinson avoids embodying your stereotypical, scold-ready father. Curtis wants his son to experience the same life-changing moments he once did as a free-spirited adolescent, plus, he’s aware of the situation Morris never asked for. Honest moments of “bickering” never reach a clichéd plateau of yells followed by tears. Conversations between father and son are even, endearing and emotional, simply through Curtis’ ability to speak openly, and his treatment of Morris. Sure, Robinson delivers expected comedy banter (grounding Curtis for having a shitty taste in music), but this is the realest modern-day relationship to grace coming-of-age stories in quite some time. Vulnerable (Morris is Curtis’ only friend, but he must slowly pull back), yet always raw despite few words being spoken.
Markees Christmas steals the show as Morris, as he drips his Yankee-cap swag all over Heidelberg. Once those electric-blue headphones are popped in, Morris transports to a safe place where Biggie’s words comfort and influence – but Morris From America is about taking his headphones off, and embracing unexpected adventures. Late-night parties with plenty of booze, a rap career mirroring Morris’ idols, awkward practice sex scenes involving pillows – Christmas hits on so much of the weirdness that comes along with being a kid, and does so with genuine hesitation. Drawing direct parallels to Julian Dennison’s Ricky from Hunt For The Widerpeople, Christmas conveys the pain of being stuck somewhere you didn’t ask to be, but finds happiness anyway. Life is scary, and it’s easy to shut down when uncertainty becomes gospel – until you open your eyes, and turn questions in to confidence. Such a brilliant “transformation” from the young Christmas, and worth every blast of Sundance praise.
In my mind, one scene marks the turn where Morris From America becomes more than just generic dramatics. Curtis discovers his son’s journal, filled with “tight” lyrics for Morris’ breakout debut, and he’s immediately critical of the writing. Not because it’s misogynistic and offensive, but because his son is simply trying to emulate what others have done. “Have you ever fucked two bitches at a time?” Curtis asks, in reference to his son’s hook. Of course the 13-year-old hasn’t, which prompts Morris to call his son’s material weak bullshit, because he’s not channeling his own unique voice. Any other similar film would have seen Curtis launch into a rant about the degrading nature of such descriptions, but instead, Curtis cuts to the real issue of Morris not trusting and representing himself. He knows Morris’ art doesn’t reflect his actions, and Curtis channels the scenario for its true teaching potential. Call it the “hip” take to parenting – or whatever – but it works, and strikes a beautiful bond between single-father and son.
Of course, nothing beats Morris’ mic-drop rap performance, which is the emotional crux Hartigan aims for. The climax where Morris embraces himself, and starts spitting lyrical wisdom based on his own experiences. One of those electric moments that plasters a smile from ear to ear, when a child realizes their full potential and experiences elation on a level unachieved until then. This is the power of Morris From America, and the winning sentiments that manifest through personal journeys we must experience for ourselves. That, and Hartigan writes up a heartwarming dramedy expressed by the dynamite pairing of Craig Robinson and Markees Christmas – the latter whom you’ll be hearing a lot of in the future. Maybe in the rap game, maybe as an actor, but mark my words, Morris From America is only the beginning for this pint-sized freestyle wiz – and what an enriching, swaggadocious beginning it is.
Morris From America finds a fresh take on coming-of-age dramatics, and coaxes a loving father/son relationship through East-coast swagger.