2016 Milwaukee Film Festival – Day Fifteen – MORRIS FROM AMERICA
The 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival came and went in a hurry as far as I’m concerned. There was time enough for one last trip to see MORRIS FROM AMERICA as the closing night film.
MORRIS FROM AMERICA tells a tale of 13 year old Morris (Markees Christmas), an African-American teen who has been relocated to Heidelberg, Germany with his widowed father (Craig Robinson) where the closest Morris has for a friend is his German language teacher (Carla Juri). Morris soon falls under the spell of blonde, 15 year old Katrin (Lina Keller) who leads him to parties, drugs, and other misadventures as Morris struggles to find his voice as a rapper and person.
MORRIS FROM AMERICA is your basic coming of age story in many aspects. But, writer/director Chad Hartigan manages to find some fresh angles on the material. How many coming of age stories focus on African-Americans after all? There’s a deft, underplayed understanding of where Morris and his father are coming from culturally. Morris and his father discussing rap music for instance comes off as an authentic bond between the two. And Hartigan doesn’t feel he has to make every turn of the plot some huge, life altering event, but rather things that happen that the characters will learn a few things from. There is some racism and some bullying towards Morris, but it’s of the low key variety so that it’s clear that what’s spurring Morris on isn’t society but his own personal needs. All of that makes the film feel intimate and character driven.
It certainly helps that the cast is uniformly good from top to bottom. Craig Robinson shows more dramatic chops than expected and Markees Christmas looks like a talented newcomer and both of them have terrific chemistry together. I wish that more scenes were just the two of them interacting.
Still, MORRIS FROM AMERICA feels a bit on the slight side. The German setting provides some pretty scenery, but Morris speaks the language well enough that there aren’t that many barriers. It’s never very clear either what Katrin gets out of hanging out with Morris either. A general sense of rebelliousness I suppose, but she’s more an object for Morris to pursue than someone who he has a real relationship with. And while the low key nature of the film is a plus, it never really builds to much. I don’t know if the film needs a catharsis or a big moment at the end, but other than father and son coming to a better understanding not much changes by the end. I suppose Morris finds his voice, but it’s in one of the few scenes that feels like a typical movie.
Chad Hartigan between MORRIS FROM AMERICA and THIS IS MARTIN BONNER is showing a nice, understated voice for exploring characters. MORRIS FROM AMERICA may not be great, but it’s a welcome addition. It was a solid close to the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival, a festival that focused this year on Black stories to a great degree. And it indicates, for the creators of MORRIS FROM AMERICA and Milwaukee Film, quite a bit of promise for the future.
Although I’ve reached the end of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival, stick around. There is still at least one review still to come and a look back at the state of the festival. Our coverage hasn’t ended yet.