SXSW 2016: ‘Morris From America’ is wonderfully original

Morris From America Movie Review

Morris From America is one of the best films of the year. I say this without a doubt in my mind because it could be released in any year and easily qualify as one of the best original features produced at that time. Writer/Director Chad Hartigan has crafted a brilliant and original twist on the familiar coming-of-age narrative that will have you smiling and rapping throughout. He’s also showcased a bright new talent in Markees Christmas, as well as the finest performance from Craig Robinson to date.

Life has been a series of adjustments for Morris (Christmas) ever since his mom died. An 11-year-old New York City native now living in Germany, Morris lives with his father (Robinson), a soccer coach for a soccer team who is still learning how to be a parent, and struggles to makes new friends. He wants to be a rapper almost as much as he wants to win the affection of a beautiful girl, Katrin (fantastic newcomer Lina Keller), but he lacks the confidence needed to make either dream a reality. That is, until Katrin approaches him, and and suddenly Morris begins to reconsider how he views himself and his new surroundings.

At face value, Morris From America is a fairly straightforward story of learning to love yourself and accepting the fact nothing we do can change the past, but there is depth to these characters and this world that surpass whatever expectations you may have for its genre. Morris himself is quite the enigma, searching for originality by copying the hip-hop legends that pour through his headphones, but never once grasping the fact it’s their personal journey that gives life to their words. His father, unsure of how to move on in his own way, struggles to connect with a son he feels growing distant. He feels his professional life has only furthered complicated an already tricky grieving process, and he doesn’t know how to apologize for life’s cruel unpredictability or show his son that he understands without feeling like he’s failing in some way as a parent. He believe Morris’ mother would be able to get through to him, and like his son he must learn to find new paths to resolution if he is ever to evolve.

Music is one of the strongest bonds these to struggling characters share, and it’s the heart and soul of the sound that provides the incredible soundtrack to Morris From America. Some of hip-hop’s biggest hits appear, as well as some certified street classics, and they’re presented in a way that shows real appreciation for the works of art they truly are. Hartigan leverages the energy of the music to propel his small town story forward in a brisk fashion that surprisingly never has to sacrifice its meatier dramatic bits for the sake of pacing. Moments, even small ones, are provided the breathing room needed to flourish into memorable sequences that viewers will be talking about for months to come.

Markees Christmas, just sixteen, carries Morris From America with talent far beyond his years. Where other actors may have leaned into the romantic or comedic traits of the characters, Christmas embodies Morris in a far more balanced and realistic way that makes him instantly relatable. Morris knows he is capable of great things, but he lacks of the knowledge, patience, or life experience needed to pursue all his heart desires. Feeling this is a result of his own actions in some way, much like his lingering guilt from the loss of his mother, Morris retreats from interacting with the world around him whenever possible. Presenting this without giving into overdramatics is a skill many seasoned actors struggle to maintain, yet Christmas makes it look as easy as breathing. He’s a natural talent in the truest sense of the word, and his presence within the film gives an added layer of believability to every turn.

Robinson, best known for his comedic work, showcases just enough of his dramatic talent to leave you yearning for more. He may receive second billing in the film, his presence in the story is minimal. His demanding profession is part of what allows Morris to continue isolating himself for as long as he does, and Robinson’s character knows this to be true. As a result of this understanding the character demands a layer of something best described as guilt in nearly every scene, and Robinson more than rises to the challenge. One interaction near the end of the film had me both in laughing with joy and shedding tears of sympathy within a matter of minutes. Hartigan’s writing and direction deserves credit here as well, as he is the one from whom everything comes, but it’s Robinson’s performance and believable connection with Christmas that sells it.

Hartigan, now three features deep in his directorial career, has found an approach to storytelling that is unlike anything we’ve seen from him up to this point. The script and direction are miles ahead of 2013’s This Is Matt Bromer, and to be honest there wasn’t much wrong with that film either. The progression of Hartigan’s talent is thrilling to see continue with this film, and the commercially friendly mix of youthful romance and smartass comedy in the narrative feels certain to attract new fans of all ages to his entire catalog of work. If all goes well, a movie like this should bring in plenty of new opportunities as well, and the world could use more minds like Hartigan guiding entertainment right now.

It should be said that the film has an even mix of english and german throughout, which means pretty much everyone will find themselves reading subtitles from time to time, but do not let that prevent you from doing whatever you must to see this film. Most indies do not demand a theatrical experience to be experienced in full, but this creative title is an exception that is bursting with life and color and sound that leaps from every frame with an infectious sense of hope that resonates deep within your soul. You root for Morris because you are or have been Morris, and I am Morris too. We’re all Morris, and if there is any supreme deity in this universe I can only hope that they blessed us all with an adventure even half as unforgettable as the one Morris experiences in our search to find ourselves.