I recently read James Joyce’s wonderful, semi-autobiographical debut novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, perhaps the finest example of a bildungsroman published in the twentieth century. It is a coming-of-age story, and because it is about the evolution of a young man into an artist, tracking him throughout his childhood as he develops and grows, it should technically also be considered a künstlerroman. The reason I am mentioning this is because, being the sometimes radical individual that I am, I managed to project a lot of the themes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man onto a film I saw recently, and it may be a bit of a stretch, but thematically, Morris from America is one of the finest coming-of-age films independent cinema has produced in a while (with the exception of Moonlight). Honestly, I just wanted to compare a century-old novel to a modern independent comedy about a young kid who wants to be a rapper – it just worked out, so I’m going to just roll with it.
Moving swiftly along, Morris from America is about the titular Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas), a 13-year-old African-American boy who moves to Germany with his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson) after the death of his wife. Morris struggles to find an identity in Germany, which is dominated by modern youth culture, obsessed with electronic dance music and heavy partying, whereas Morris dreams of being a rapper. Not only is he a foreigner to people of a different country, he is also an outsider to the people of his own generation. It all changes when Morris meets Katrin (Lina Keller), a mysterious German girl who he almost instantly falls in love with. Yet they find themselves on separate ends of the spectrum, and despite their chemistry, they struggle to actually become close. This isn’t a love story – it is a typical fish-out-of-water narrative, with some wonderful additions of romance. But most of all, this is a story about growing up and feeling isolated.
I am always interested in seeing introductions of young performers in independent films. Independent cinema creates complex and interesting characters, and younger characters are no exception, and we have some truly amazing performances thanks to independent filmmakers. Markees Christmas makes an explosive debut as the titular character in Morris from America. Charming, funny and awkward, Christmas is delightful and here’s hoping that Morris from America can provide him with the necessary showcase to get more work in films, because he is clearly a talent to watch. I thought his performance here was a lot of fun and he was wonderful.
Craig Robinson plays Morris’ father, and he has never been better. Robinson is often typecast as the idiotic or elaborately slobbish everyman, and while these roles are funny, they don’t show much range in the terms of character that Robinson can play. In Morris from America, Robinson juggles a complicated character, one that is the main source of this film’s humour, basically playing an embarrassing but good-hearted father, while still playing a man trying to make a better life for himself and his son. Robinson’s performance extends far beyond just comic relief – he has a fully-formed character arc that is supported by some wonderfully poignant moments where we see Curtis as his own character. His final speech towards the end of the film gave me chills, and he gives one of the most surprising performances of the year.
Morris from America has many great supporting performances, but I just want to mention two that really stuck out to me. Lina Keller is also relatively new to film, and playing Morris’ love-interest, she is mysterious, interesting and complicated. Her character arc may not be as formed as the main characters in this film, but she certainly does her very best with a character that could’ve been incredibly unlikable, but rather ended up being strangely endearing. Carla Juri plays Morris’ German tutor, and I think she had a very interesting character to play, and even if this film did gloss over some pretty vital points in her development, I couldn’t help being enticed by her performance, equally as endearing as Keller, but unlike Keller, Juri’s performance does not have a traditional arc – and this may be a flaw of the film, because there were some moments where Inka’s presence was unneeded (such as visiting Curtis to tell him about Morris’ vulgarity – a very out-of-character moment). However, both Keller and Juri give amazing performances and I sincerely hope they get name-recognition by being offered some great film roles in the future.
There is something about Morris from America that was just so unique. I can’t quite get what it is, but through the themes, I found something quite profound – the fact that this is a film that subverts expectations. It is relatively without genre – it is certainly a coming-of-age story, and a very funny film, but we never know if it is going to become a musical comedy, or a romance, or an adventure. It subverts expectations, and while most films would end with the protagonist getting the girl, this film ends in a very different but even more satisfying manner. This subversion of clichéd plot development, combined with the film’s serious themes, makes for quite a fascinating film that is a lot more layered than its initial appearance would seem. Even in the way the film looked, there was something unique – the framing of certain shots was beautiful, and while it may not be a complex piece of technical filmmaking, some great liberties were undertaken to allow for a unique film, and one that is as complex as its characters.
Personally, I found Morris from America to be a delightful film. The performances were great, particularly that of Craig Robinson, who surprised me. The film just looks wonderful and the narrative is simple but still layered enough to result in a story that goes in directions we wouldn’t exactly expect. Morris from America is a great film, and the kind of humble independent comedy that I adore, and I hope everyone that seeks out this amazing film will adore as well.