[Note: This is Matt’s review from the Sundance Film Festival; as the film enters limited release today, we are reposting]
What would indie cinema be without coming-of-age dramedies featuring young teens in unique-yet-familiar situations? They all exist on a spectrum, but at some point a young person (usually male) is going to learn some very important life lessons such as “Your parents are flawed individuals” and “Your crush will break your heart.” It’s a formula as familiar as any blockbuster, but Chad Hartigan’s Morris from America executes it fairly well thanks to likable characters and strong performances. And yet what’s most frustrating about Hartigan’s film is how he runs from the one aspect that would make his film stand apart from the crowd.
13-year-old Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas) lives in Heidelberg, Germany with his father Curtis (Craig Robinson), who works as a coach for the local soccer team. Morris has trouble making friends due to his ethnicity and interests, but develops a crush on the rebellious Katrin (Lina Keller). Desperate to impress her, Morris tries to find an identity that works for him as he pursues his interest in freestyle rap while also putting his single dad through the growing pains of a rebellious child. Along the way, Morris learns about the aforementioned flawed parent, heartbreak, etc.
I’m not sure why Hartigan decides to play his film so safe. Perhaps he felt that if he leaned towards making the story more universal, he would win over more of the audience, but it only serves to make Morris more of a shrug, and we’re left wondering why the filmmaker neglects his protagonist’s unique relationship to his surroundings. As Curtis tells Morris, “We’re the only two brothers in Heidelberg. We have to stick together.”
Occasionally, Morris has to confront racism, and I really like the way the film uses the language barrier as a tug-of-war where the person in power speaks the native tongue, but Hartigan doesn’t delve deeper into Morris’ alienation. Instead, he prefers to go with a generic story about Morris falling for Katrin, who we know is bad news (Keller gives a good performance, but it’s a character almost straight out of a PSA), so Morris learns life lessons, grows up, and hits all of the standard plot beats.
It still makes for a fairly sweet movie, especially thanks to the performances from Christmas and Robinson, who gets to show his dramatic side as a husband who’s still grieving over his wife’s death and doesn’t know how to move on. But when a movie plays it so safe that it won’t even engage in its most unique aspect, we’re left to wonder why bother? While I’m grateful that the movie doesn’t overload on quirk or try to sell me that an upper-middle-class white boy is facing a serious struggle, indie films should push some kind of envelope that Hollywood isn’t willing to move. Morris from America will make you laugh and maybe even cheer, and when the movie is over, you’ll forget what you just saw.
Morris from America is now playing in select cities.