Slowly but surely, filmmaker Chad Hartigan is becoming one of the more popular names on the independent scene. From his feature debut Luke and Brie Are on a First Date to his prior outing, the very well regarded This is Martin Bonner, all the way to his newest work Morris from America, Hartigan is crafting mature movies for adults that still manage to be thoroughly entertaining. In the case of his latest flick, he’s also put together an understated coming of age story that does a ton right in telling this particular tale. In addition, it’s also surprisingly effective in its depiction of a unique yet also common father/son relationship, giving it a secondary DNA that helps set itself apart from the rest of the genre. The plot developments aren’t especially unique and many of you will see most of the film coming ahead of time, but that’s not really the point. This is a look at growing up, making your way in a strange land and the connections you make, so if it’s familiar or rings true, to some degree that’s got to be intentional. Hartigan does a good job of making just about every element of Morris from America effective, so even if your not blown away, you’re likely entertained. An added bonus comes from how great Craig Robinson is here, but I’ll get to him soon enough. I can’t quite say that I loved Morris from America, but I did like it quite a bit and can easily recommend it to you all.
The film follows 13 year old Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas) as he makes his way in Germany, a place he’s had to move with his father Curtis Gentry (Robinson). The former is there because his father is a soccer coach/widower trying to make a better life for them both, but frustrations are abound for each. Morris is an outcast among his fellow teenagers, only really interacting with his father and tutor Inka (Carla Juri), while Curtis feels often unprepared for the man his son is starting to become. A change comes for Morris when he begins spending time with a slightly older girl in Katrin (Lina Keller), who is fascinated by him. She sees Morris as a temporary curiosity, while he’s smitten, despite the clear presence of a boyfriend already in Katrin’s life. This will lead to all sorts of bad decisions, many that all of us have made in the past, but will help shape Morris into the adult he’ll ultimately be. All along, he’ll struggle with Curtis over their conflicting taste in hip-hop/rap, while secretly honing his own musical skills. It’s a movie based around moments more than plot, and in that realm it’s a big success.
The acting is solid across the board in Morris from America, but for me the highlight of it all is the father/son chemistry between Craig Robinson and Markees Christmas. It’s a very nice debut performance from Christmas, though Robinson out and out steals the show. Not only is he funny, as you’d expect, he digs deep for some very effective dramatic moments. Robinson never overplays the widower aspect of his character, but there are small flickers here and there where you see the pain that Curtis is suffering from. A final scene where he tells his son a story is perhaps his best work to date. This takes nothing away from Christmas, but he’s definitely in the shadow of Robinson. Both Carla Juri and Lina Keller are fine, though they’re definitely less interesting characters. Supporting players include Benedikt Crisand, Eva Löbau, and more, but this is pretty much all about Christmas and Robinson. The former is good, while the latter is out and out great.
Writer/director Chad Hartigan fills Morris from America with character building moments, and that’s what really makes it work, apart from the acting, of course. Hartigan’s direction is unobtrusive, though when he adds some flair, like a fantasy sequence of sorts, it’s oddly welcome. His writing shines, however, showing a deep well of knowledge about the relationships depicted within. He also is quick to avoid most cliches, especially when one threatens to pop up. Armed with low key cinematography from Sean McElwee and music from Keegan DeWitt, Hartigan creates a sturdy skeleton to build out from. The film never quite becomes a next level showstopper for me, but it’s the kind of small scale success that you definitely appreciate in the moment.
Overall, Morris from America is a good movie that showcases Robinson in a whole new way. I suspect we’re a project or two away from Hartigan dropping an Oscar player on us, though Robinson is certainly deserving of some Best Supporting Actor consideration this year. If you like coming of age stories, this is one that has plenty to offer. A slightly lax pacing, even for a 91 minute film, helps to knock this one down a tiny peg, but you really can’t go wrong with this flick. Morris from America is quality indie entertainment and strong counter programming during the summer blockbuster season.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!