Movie Review: "Morris from America," with Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson and Lina Keller
"Forget charming. I'm a gangster," says 13-year-old Morris (Markees Christmas) to his German tutor in Morris from America, moments after asking her if she can give him tips about how to woo an older girl and almost immediately after she gently backs away from the request. That push/pull of Morris's interests is barely under the surface of his personality; he can be almost entirely silent around kids his own age, but loquacious around Inka (Carla Juri) during their sessions together.
Who is Morris? He's from America -- with all the expectations and baggage that brings for a kid living abroad.
Being 13 is tough for anybody, but especially for Morris, living in Heidelberg, Germany, with his father Curtis (Craig Robinson, of Get On Up) after his mother's death. Curtis is taking the loss of his wife hard -- a picture of her hangs in their home that he looks at constantly -- but the relationship he has with Morris is more friendly than authoritative. He tries to teach him about old-school hip-hop, lecturing Morris about his preferences for pop-leaning rap ("Go to your room. You're grounded. Because you like terrible music"), and joking about the size of Morris's junk ("Why you gotta talk about my dick, Dad?").
But for all their joking around, there's a distance between the pair because of Curtis's choice to move them to Germany, where the former player is now an assistant coach for a local team. Their lives are ruled by the home-work/home-school routine, and a shot where they're the only two black people eating ice cream in a sea of white faces is deliberate -- their loneliness is palpable.
Morris's hormones are palpable, too, once he starts crushing on a 15-year-old blonde named Katrin (Lina Keller), who oscillates between gently teasing him and brutally humiliating him. Amid all the bullying or ignoring from the other kids his age -- who mockingly call him Kobe Bryant and MC Big Mac -- Katrin is the only one who speaks to him at all.
Yet even their conversations are ruled by her stereotypes: "I hear black people are good dancers. Is this true? ... You don't dance and you don't play basketball? So none of those things are true? ... Do you have a big dick? Is your dick big?" Morris can only stare at her, dumbfounded, and his frustration with being so misunderstood comes up again and again in Morris from America.
The film is told nearly primarily from Morris's point of view, so we experience the way others judge him, over and over again: the leader of his youth program, who doesn't even know Morris's name, accuses him of smoking marijuana and forcing other kids to join him; Katrin's mother calls him "that black boy"; and his primary bully tells him that instead of performing freestyle at their talent show, he should "go onstage and kill yourself."
But for all the negative stereotypes Morris from America deftly portrays, it doesn't really show us what makes Germany so foreign to Morris. The barely veiled racism is a gut-punch every time, but the story doesn't do enough to build out Morris's other experiences, or explain why his relationship with his father seems so strained. He is abused by older teenagers over and over again, but that eventually feels repetitive instead of insightful. (Although, it is a nice touch that the main bully wears an array of T-shirts that have the names of American states on them, like Ohio and California -- but he can't bring himself to actually care about the feelings of the American teen he keeps harassing.)
Where the film makes its lasting impression is in Morris's interactions with his father, who finally drops his best-friend act when he realizes Morris is writing raps that claim his mother is a drug addict, his father is in prison, and he's having threesomes -- all untrue statements. "Have you ever fucked two bitches at a time?" Curtis asks exasperatedly, and his advice that Morris rap about "what's really going on with you" is one of the most honest interactions between the two. Equally memorable is the moment Curtis tells the photograph of his dead wife "Wish you were here. Shit's starting to get real" -- how Robinson rests his head against the photo on the wall is quietly devastating.
Ultimately, it's those father/son moments in Morris from America that make it worth watching. Christmas and Robinson have great chemistry together, especially when Christmas goes all snarky teen in their interactions ("Source Awards? Is that how far I get in your dreams?" he says in disbelief when Curtis lays out his idea of his son's future), and that storyline is more impactful than Morris's crush on Katrin. Sure, it's a painfully awkward moment when Morris takes one of Katrin's cardigans, puts it on his pillow, and then humps it on his bed, and maybe that's an accurate depiction of teenage sexual discovery. But Curtis laughing that Morris is "grounded like a motherfucker," and the way father and son silently agree to stick by each other, is what makes Morris from America more than just another coming-of-age story.