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Review of Morris from America, Directed by Chad Hartigan

Three summers ago, writer/director Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner slipped into theaters and, over three months, accumulated a miniscule $13,000 at the box office. It was gone from theaters by September of that year, but between its pre-release festival appearances and brief theatrical run, the film found favor with many critics—Christians included—who responded to the warm humanity of Hartigan’s story about a man trying to help a just-released prisoner adjust to life on the outside. (I was a fan, but not as fervent as most. See here for a discussion of the film among Christian film critics.)

Hartigan’s humanism is on display again in Morris From America, about 13-year-old Morris (Markees Christmas) learning to live in Heidelberg, Germany, with his widower dad, Curtis (Craig Robinson). While Curtis interacts with the soccer team he coaches, Morris is more isolated. Rather than develop relationships, the boy—an aspiring rapper—seems content to roam the city, his iPod blasting hip-hop into his ears. In one of the film’s early attempts to visualize Morris’ state of mind, we see him imagining museumgoers—and even the statues on display—nodding their heads to the beats in Morris’ head.

It’s hard to blame Morris, who’s African-American, for discomfort around his peers, nearly all of whom are white. One classmate repeatedly dubs Morris “Kobe Bryant,” and a girl he’s interested in makes stereotypical comments about Morris’ presumed anatomical traits.

The boy, unsurprisingly, is someone Morris prefers to avoid, but the girl, Katrin (Lina Keller), attracts him. She’s a couple of years older than Morris, and Morris is drawn to her self-assurance as much as to her looks. But he’s also wary of Katrin’s overt friendliness. Is she genuinely interested in his friendship (or something more?), or just setting him up for humiliation?

Ideally Morris would go to his father for insight and guidance on matters of the heart, but the film falters in its depiction of that relationship. While Curtis clearly loves Morris, he talks to him more like a buddy than a son, dishing out stern words only when it comes to Morris’ taste in lyrically coarse music and the boy’s appropriation of lewd, misogynistic rhymes. There’s something to Curtis’ critique, but it would be stronger if Curtis himself weren’t so loose with his own language around the boy.

Curtis also isn’t interested in anyone else’s parenting advice. When a German instructor (Carla Juri) brings her concerns about Morris’ well-being to Curtis, he dismisses it. She’s his teacher, not his mother, and—unspoken but apparent to anyone with eyes—she’s white. Hartigan gives Curtis the final word in that debate, but the father’s advice feels insufficient in dealing with Morris’ struggles.

That sense of insufficiency extends to overall film, which, while never cloying, tries to put across a sweet-and-heart-warming vibe that ultimately isn’t convincing. Like its title character, the film never seems sure of its own identity.

 

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