Midway through Morris From America, Chad Hartigan’s winning if decidedly minor coming-of-age comedy, 13-year-old Morris (Markees Christmas) is forced to perform a rap he wrote when it’s discovered by his single dad, Curtis (Craig Robinson).
Reluctantly, he obliges: “Fuckin’ all the bitches, two at a time / All you can take, for just $10.99 / Mom’s on the pipe and Pop’s on death row / So who gives a shit if I fuck all these hoes.”
Curtis is incredulous.
“Why are you mad? You curse all the time,” Morris pleads.
“I ain’t mad at you for writing those rhymes because they’re explicit; I’m mad at you for writing those rhymes because they’re bullshit,” Curtis says.
It’s a funny, expectation-reversing scene, and it sums up Hartigan’s sensibility well: No bullshit.
His previous feature, This is Martin Bonner, deftly told a relentlessly low-key story of two men on the cusp of a fresh start. Morris From America is a little slicker and a little more archetypal, but despite its hidebound fish-out-of-water trappings, the film often succeeds at replicating the ordinary struggles of growing up, without too much artificial screenwriter-ly B.S.
Christmas, in his first role, is well-suited to Hartigan’s brand of naturalism, and he displays a nice mix of private charisma and public awkwardness.
Morris feels completely out of place in the small German town he lives in, moved there by Curtis to advance his career as a soccer coach. As the only black person among his peers, Morris encounters plenty of casual racism, though the film is more interested in exploring misfit generalities than his struggle with his black identity.
Morris has an easy rapport with his 30-ish German tutor Inka (Carla Juri), but he’s uncomfortable around girls his own age. Still, the streetwise Katrin (Lina Keller) takes an interest in him, a brand of condescending affection that Morris reciprocates with full-on puppy love.
If all this seems headed for a major emotional crash, you haven’t seen one of Hartigan’s films before. The stakes remain low, and the agonies and the triumphs are modest. When the acting is good, this approach is refreshing, and the acting here is full of interesting subtleties, aided by Hartigan’s patient editing, which is always willing to let a scene materialize past what might seem like endpoints.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than a scene near the end of the film where Curtis opens up about his late wife while driving in the car with Morris. Hartigan lets the conversation ebb and flow, and Robinson finds just the right note of grief that’s aged long enough to allow the harsh edges to subside.
At the point of this scene, the film’s climax has already occurred, but instead of wrapping things up in a neat bow, Hartigan allows for this deeply human moment to play out, unhurried. It’s that instinct that makes him a filmmaker worth paying attention to.
Lionsgate’s Blu-ray presents the film in a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer that’s predictably sharp and clean, though certain bright colors have a tendency to look garish. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack gets its biggest workout from the ’90s hip-hop on the soundtrack.
Extras include an amiable commentary track full of good-natured ribbing from Hartigan, Robinson and Christmas, along with a pretty standard making-of featurette, a blooper reel, casting tapes for Christmas and Keller and a deleted scene involving a failed attempt at a hickey.