Review: Morris from America (Hartigan, 2016) – Sundance 2016

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Film distributors and Sundance audiences seemed especially hungry for films starring African Americans this year (maybe because of the Oscar controversy, or maybe because people just want to see some different faces). Nate Parker‘s The Birth of a Nation, about the Nat Turner slave rebellion, was so popular that even its viewing at Eccles admitted no moviegoers from the waitlist–a rarity for a screening at the 1,270-seat theater (for reference, at an average show nearly a hundred audience members come from the waitlist). Word on the street was that Parker’s picture received a standing ovation before it even began. The film was purchased by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million in Sundance history’s most expensive acquisition. Sleight, featuring a black street magician/drug dealer trying to support his sister, was also acquired mid-festival. Blumhouse (low-budget horror producer) and WWE Studios (yup, the wrestling people) purchased the film, showcased in Sundance’s lower-budget and more obscure lineup “Next,” for over $1 million. Another “Next” film, The Fits, about a Cincinnati dance team given to the fits and the tomboy outsider (newcomer black actress Royalty Hightower) trying to fit in, was purchased pre-festival. And then there’s Morris from America with a “breakout performance” by Markees Christmas, who plays a pudgy African American teen living in Heidelberg, Germany. According to the Sundance blog, the film premiere earned a “rapturous response” from the audience; two days later it was scooped up by A24 for an undisclosed amount. (On the other hand, there didn’t seem to be much interest in Southside with You, a reimagining of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date, or How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, a “Next” rom-com about a misogynist who falls in love.)

At any rate, we counted ourselves lucky to get in to the second screening of Morris, via the waitlist. It was Monday. Markees had left. Craig Robinson (The Office) had left. Of the cast, only the German actress Carla Juri (Wetlands) had stayed in town. As much as I like to think it’s not the stars that draw people to films at Sundance, it’s frankly the stars that draw people to films at Sundance (I’m guilty, too).

Morris (Christmas) and his single father Curtis (Robinson) have recently moved to Heidelberg, where Curtis is one of several coaches for the city’s football club. Besides hanging out with his dad, Morris’s only social contact is with his German language tutor Inka (Juri). That is until, at Inka’s prodding, Morris signs up for a summer youth camp. As one might expect, being black, American, and 13 years old in a sea of white German adolescents isn’t easy, especially for someone as un-athletic, shy, and defensive as Morris.

It seems like a miracle when the blonde and leggy 15-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller) takes a friendly interest in the newcomer. Their budding friendship is threatened, however, when Katrin, after inviting Morris to a party, humiliates him in front of a large crowd. Whether Katrin is mean-spirited or simply culturally different we never know for sure; her manner teeters between edgy/challenging and warm/fun, always keeping Morris slightly off-balance.

Our hero is nonetheless enchanted. In a commendable show of restraint, director and writer Chad Hartigan (This Is Martin Bonner) keeps the volume of this infatuation at an enjoyable murmur. Morris is lovesick, yes, but also taciturn and confused. No emo shows of groaning and brooding to be found in this light-hearted coming-of-age tale.

Still, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. I wanted to like Morris from America–or, more accurately, I expected to. But the characters all have the cartoonish outlines of a movie made not just about teens but for them. The plot, too, seems a hodgepodge of scenes that are both implausible (which is forgivable) and narratively ill-connected (less so). Perhaps the autobiographical root for some scenes (including the pillow-humping one! see Q&A below) accounts for part of the jumble. Regardless, the effect is to make the film seem like a rookie endeavor. Also, the jokes are mediocre: they’re of a tried-and-true nature, ones we laugh at out of habit rather than because they surprise us.

Robinson and Juri are competent in their roles (not that they’re asked for much), Christmas a little uneven (unsurprising in an untrained actor).

But what do I know? This crowd favorite won both the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and a Special Jury Award for Individual Performance (Craig Robinson). Wish I’d seen The Birth of a Nation, though.

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