In trying to figure out how white, Irish filmmaker Chad Hartigan would be able to write about a black American teenager living in Germany (the central character in Morris from America), I keep coming back to The Commitments. In Alan Parker’s1993 film about the rise and fall of a white, working-class Dublin band, the group’s manager sells them on soul music by telling them that, “The Irish are the blacks of Europe.” It’s a simplistic analogy but certainly one with some merit. Still, even if Hartigan does understand something about being an outsider on his own continent, it doesn’t feel like he poured very much of that experience into Morris from America. It gets a few laughs but ultimately skims the surface of its protagonist’s experience. It’s as shallowly effective as a bumper sticker.
A breakout hit from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film stars Craig Robinson as Curtis, a middle-aged widower who moves to Germany with his 13-year-old son Morris (Markees Christmas) to take a coaching job with a soccer team. Morris is a loner by circumstance. He barely speaks German, although he has a cool, young tutor (Carla Juri) to help him get by. At summer school, Morris keeps to himself until he locks eyes with Katrin (Lina Keller), a pretty classmate who seems determined to help Morris have a good time. She takes him to parties, encourages him to experiment with drugs, and hints around at a romance that may never arrive.
The casting of Christmas perfectly highlights the film’s strengths and weaknesses. With his chubby face, wide eyes, and diminutive stature, Christmas exudes vulnerability and has a natural ease in front of the camera. But his soft, quiet nature telegraphs the film’s failures. Morris seems born to be screwed over, so as soon as Katrin takes an interest in him, our hearts harden and prepare for the obvious romantic letdown. It takes Morris a long time to figure out what is clear to the viewer from the get-go—Katrin just has a mild case of jungle fever—making the film feel like a drawn-out exercise in embarrassment.
Respite from the painful vulnerability of Morris’s romantic escapades comes in the winning chemistry between Christmas and Robinson, whose whose father-son chemistry is both breezy and deeply felt. Robinson digs a little deeper than he has in previous roles (although anything would be more substantial than Hot Tub Time Machine 2), although he still gets laughs as a father who is trying so hard to connect to his son that he has reverted to childhood himself. After Morris rejects his dad’s efforts to impress upon him the virtues of ‘80s rap, Curtis grounds him. “For what?” Morris asks. “For having shitty taste in music!”
As a racial document, Morris from America mines similar territory as last year’s Dope. It aims to depict a type of blackness rarely seen in mainstream media. Morris is a nerd and outcast, and, barring a few details, his struggle is no different than any other teenager’s. That is both a strength and a weakness. The film adheres to a winning formula, guaranteeing the viewer a moderately enjoyable two hours and nothing more. It never fills in the details with anything specific to the black experience, or even the Irish one. Despite its unusual premise, Morris from America is as generic as its title.
Morris from America opens everywhere today.