A young African American and his father try to adapt to their new lives in Germany.
Directed by Chad Hartigan
Starring Markees Christmas and Craig Robinson
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
The various Germans are letting their masks fall off in who they perceive Morris to be. Modern Germany is supposed to be polite and worldly and PC, but characters who surely think of themselves that way can’t help but engage in behavior that further isolates Morris. The youth director, when he’s not quoting Marcus Aurelius, immediately thinks Morris has been smoking weed. Katrin’s mother looks deeply unnerved by Morris being in her daughter’s room. Katrin herself is put off by how Morris doesn’t adhere to stereotypes she holds about black people, including the fetishistic one she uncomfortably propositions Morris with. We never see another black man in the film beyond Morris and his dad, and for the people in Heidelberg, either might be the first black person they’ve ever met. Hartigan complicates things by having Morris be an aspiring rapper, and if he is the first black person the youth center kids have met, then they’re first experience with one is him rapping about fucking bitches and then trying to fight a heckler. For the casual observer, he’s fulfilling a stereotype, but for the viewer, he made an understandable mistake. The kids and the youth center staff aren’t likely to give him that benefit of the doubt.
The person Morris spends the most time with, Katrin (Lina Keller), is a confusing character. This might be on purpose, a representation of the inscrutability of teenage girls to a teenage boy. It might also be Hartigan misjudging how she comes across. She’s a shit-stirrer and an instigator, spending time with Morris to rile people up while also taking advantage of him for her own amusement. There’s trying to pull someone out of their shell, which I think is how the film perceives her, and there’s someone who tries to make people into dancing bears, which is how I see her. She’s compounded by Manic Pixie Dream Girl shorthand, with her general attire and role in Morris’ arc as someone who inspires him without having much of an inner life herself. She keeps doing nigh-unforgivable things, especially the bedroom scene, but Morris keeps forgiving her. As a horny teenage boy given to pillow-sex (Then, I eat the soup. Watch Big Mouth, everyone), it’s understandable that he would do so, but the film both underplays her character and is also too easy on her. She’s a shitty person who clearly knows what she’s doing with Morris, and some comeuppance would’ve been appreciated, though maybe she doesn’t deserve it if she can engender such a level of joy in Morris. Katrin’s a tough character, and I can’t decide if that’s an asset or not.
The person that Morris is ignoring for the chance to be with Katrin is the best part of the film. Craig Robinson gives the performance of his career as Curtis, someone going through something similar to Morris but who’s not allowed to be reckless about it. I always knew Robinson had perfect comic timing but he pulls of a surprising level of emotion. Hartigan allows Curtis to be lonely and maybe even depressed, but he’s always a good dad to his son. Curtis wants to spend time with Morris because he’s his son, but also because the alternative is quiet dinners or awkward drinks with his coworkers. The film respectfully pities him, but most importantly, it never gives Morris a reason to. Theirs is a relationship that’s changing, and Curtis is adapting well. Robinson is finely calibrated in every interaction he has with his son, giving him surprising advice that I’ve never seen in a movie. His centerpiece several-minute monologue, about the benefit of putting oneself out into the world and the oft-forgotten alliance between parents and children, is exceptional, with several instances that push Curtis to the edge of tears before realizing that such a display of emotion would distract from the lesson he’s trying to impart. I would go so far as to say that it’s an award worthy performance with Curtis as one of the great dad characters.
Morris From America’s assets are considerable, but it did leave me wanting. Either Christmas isn’t quite up to certain parts of this role or Katrin’s too conflicted or I needed to be more into rap. There’s a lot to admire, starting with Robinson. Greatness was within reach, but it’s not quite there. I do find myself liking Hartigan more and more as a director of films about loneliness. Maybe I can unreservedly love the next one. B