By Jared Huizenga – Contributing Writer
Think back to your awkward teenage years where you can’t do anything right and everything and everyone sucks. Now add a layer of “fish out of water” to that, with another layer of being the only person of your race (outside of your family) in your new home.
Such is the case of the 13-year-old titular character in “Morris from America.”
Morris (Markees Christmas) is a typical young teenage boy. He’s into hip hop and fancies himself a budding rapper. He has a growing interest in the opposite sex, or at least in photos of them that he mysteriously hides under his bed. The major difference is that Morris is doing all of these things in a foreign land.
Morris’ father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), is a former soccer player that has taken a coaching job in Germany. And we’re not talking one of the major cities, we’re talking about a small exurb where Morris and Curtis are pretty much the only black people around – adding to Morris’ difficulties.
While he excels in school, Morris lacks social skills. He talks a big game with girls, namely Katrin (Lina Keller), as well as with his hip hop abilities, but when the time comes to back it up, things usually go wrong for him.
As he struggles to fit in, he finds himself on that slippery slope of drugs, lying, sex, jealousy and virtually any predicament a teenage boy can find himself facing.
“Morris from America” is the quintessential coming-of-age tale. You’ve got your likable leading youngster, struggling in transitioning from boy to man and his widower father struggling with his own ghosts, while trying to help and maintain a healthy relationship with his only child.
It’s those other layers, the ones that aren’t seen as often that really make this film stand out. Being a teenager is hard. Learning a new language, culture and day-to-day way of life is a challenge. And, I imagine, being judged on or expected to act in a certain way (whether it be in a positive or negative way) simply because of the color of your skin – and the fact that you’re the only one with that skin color – would be a challenge.
The thing I most appreciated about this story was that despite all of these obstacles, none of the situations facing Morris seemed like that much of a reach. In one instance, a new classmate is surprised to find out he doesn’t play basketball and in another he struggles to communicate with peers that speak too fast for him and in yet another he lies about his whereabouts to go to a party with Katrin.
All felt natural, unforced and it added a level of realism to the story.
The other things that really stood out were the performances of Christmas and Robinson.
Making his film debut, Christmas tackled a pretty meaty role and pulled it off in a remarkable manner. He doesn’t as polished as a more experienced actor his age would be – again adding to the realism. While it’s likely not the case, it feels at times like Morris could easily be an extension of Markees. A very impressive debut.
The biggest and best surprise, however, was the performance of Robinson. Known more for his comedic roles in films like “Pineapple Express” and “This is the End,” Robinson displays some serious dramatic chops. Having worked a lot with the Judd Apatow crew – Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, etc. – I expected Robinson to have similar results in a dramatic role … good, but probably best served sticking to making people laugh. I was wrong. He does bring some humor and here and there, but it’s a much more realistic, more mature humor – “dad humor” if you will – that works simply because of his timing. And then when you’re not expecting it, he brings vulnerability or unexpected empathy to Curtis that truly brings him to life.
Fall/winter is typically the time of year when studios start rolling out dramas in anticipation of awards season. While indie films like this are typically overlooked, “Morris from America” is much better than most of what you’ll see from major studios in the coming months.
★★★★ of ★★★★★
Jared Huizenga is a freelance movie critic. Follow his work at www.facebook.com/JaredMovies.