Morris is a 13-year-old African-American boy. He’s from New York City but he lives in Heidelberg, Germany with his dad, Curtis, who is on the coaching staff of the Heidelburg soccer team. Morris’ mother has died, he does not speak much German, he’s the only black kid in his neighborhood, and the only American. He is lonely and unhappy about these circumstances, and hates living in Germany.
That’s the set-up for A24’s new film, Morris From America. Craig Robinson, who plays Curtis, brings much empathy to his comedic performance. He sees the sadness in his son, played by Markees Christmas, and the loneliness. Curtis does his best to connect. Mostly he does this through hip-hop; Morris likes to rap and keeps a notebook of his rhymes. The interaction between father and son sets up a dynamic that is recognizable and emotionally direct.
When Morris meets Katrin, a 15-year-old who takes an interest in the only black kid in Heidelburg, they create an unusual, complicated friendship. It is winding, weird, and indirect. Katrin’s fifteen, dating a college kid. Morris is thirteen, but quickly he is swept into a world far beyond his age. He’s going to college parties, hitting the road with a stranger’s band. Katrin’s curious about this American artifact; he’s smitten by the older girl who takes a second to talk to him. She’s mean to him at times; he’s confused by her behavior, but they become friends. More than anything, Katrin offers a break from the cruel German kids Morris interacts with, whose racist overtures toward the curiosity of a black boy drive Morris ever more into his headphones.
Writer/Director Chad Hartigan prods successfully in the territory of Morris’ teenage troubles for comedy and melancholy. Hartigan especially has an ear for the interactions of dad and kid. The film’s best moments come when the two Americans are faced with the trials of raising a kid in a foreign country. Hartigan looks at a single father’s struggles with his son’s sexual maturation and social isolation as funny, exasperating. Hartigan also allows Curtis his own loneliness, and Robinson does well to anchor the adult element of the comic sadness.
Morris’s relationship with the Germans in the film is a bit trickier for Hartigan. Carla Juri (Wetlands) plays Morris’ language tutor, and she misunderstands Morris’ interest in hip-hop and rap. The kids at the rec center harass him, mock him, call him racist names. Thus, Morris’ days are spent walking German streets, wearing headphones blaring American hip-hop. His headphones are a refuge; Morris connects to the beats and the rap lyrics, and he interprets Heidelburg through the music in his ears. While all of this may well accurately represent the difficulty of life abroad for a thirteen year old African American boy from Brooklyn, there is something about Hartigan’s handling of Morris’ turn to interiority that feels off.
A triumphant victory for the American is not called for, but a surer hand around the racial humor and ‘fish out of water’ storyline might have elevated Morris even more. I say even more because Morris From America is a delightful, lovely piece of cinema. Hartigan may not get all his American Youth beats down, but this is a European film, and to expect otherwise may be unfair.
The other notable success from Morris From America is the slice of adolescence it chooses to portray, one too rarely seen in the movies. Apparently one need get to Europe for this kind of teen-boy work. In the States, coming-of-age stories for teenage boys this young are few, and they tend do follow adventure story plots, from Goonies to Super 8 in the movies, to, most recently Stranger Things on television. European films, from the Francois Truffaut’s adventures of Antoine Doinel to Michel Gondry’s Microbe & Gasoline, have show more interest in the philosophic, static days of those earliest pubescent boys. Don’t get me wrong, coming-of-age teen boy stories have always been a mainstay of the cinema arts; coming of age boy movies are a dime-a-dozen. But as a rule we like our kid movies to feature prepubescent adventurers (Eliot from E.T., the kids from Stranger Things) or girl-obsessed high-schoolers (John Hughes, John Green). Thirteen-year-old boys suffering the boredoms of adolescence, that is rare (though not unheard of, I admit).
Morris from America is an interesting contribution to that work: an American teenager in a European coming-of-age film.