A heartwarming and crowd-pleasing coming-of-age comedy with a unique spin, Morris From America centers on Morris Gentry (Christmas) a 13-year-old who has just relocated with his single father, Curtis (Robinson) to Heidelberg, Germany. Morris, who fancies himself the next Notorious B.I.G., is a complete fish-out-of-water— a budding hip-hop star in an EDM world. To complicate matters further, Morris quickly falls hard for his cool, rebellious, 15-year-old classmate Katrin. Morris sets out against all odds to take the hip-hop world by storm and win the girl of his dreams.
The "fish out of water" narrative certainly isn't a new one. 'Morris from America' premeired at Sundance this past year and that's one place you should expect to see about half a dozen feature films with that premise. Yet, 'Morris' sticks out as one of the better ones in part because its unassuming lead, Markees Christmas is such an effecting presence.
Christmas plays Morris, a teenager who 's forced to live in Germany because his father (Craig Robinson) coaches soccer there. Morris is influenced by hip-hop and rap. He spends his time writing his own lyrics and trying to create his own beats and flows. It's a difficult proposition since he finds himself stuck in a world of electronic dance music.
Deeper, however, is the fact that Morris is a lone black teenager growing up in a foreign environment that isn't kind to him. The local kids relentlessly pick on him, but Morris seems to shrug off most of the attacks. He's a strong kid. Never resorting to violence, even when that would seem like the easiest and most effective route.
Like so many young kids Morris finds himself with a crush. A girl from his town seems to take an interest in him. And, like so many young boys Morris awkwardly tries to make win her heart. It's easy to relate to Morris' predicament; we've all been there. We know how devestated he must feel when he finds out she has an older boyfriend. We know what he must feel when he still thinks he has a chance no matter how long the odds appear.
And so it goes with Chad Hartigan's affecting coming-of-age drama. Hartigan is able to craft an interesting story from bits of narrative construction we've seen a thousand times before. Perhaps it's because the story of Morris, and how it simply flows, feels much more genuine than some other coming-of-age dramas feel. It's hard to put my finger on why exactly this one feels different enough to be immensely likeable.
Christmas gives a wonderful performance here. Only ever being featured on TV, he shows that he has the acting chops to actually carry a feature-length film. He does so with an ease that makes the whole thing feel quite authentic.
Morris' awkwardness is relateable because we all know what it was like trying to awkwardly navigate our teenage years. The fact that Morris is trying to also overcome an immense cultural shirt simply intensifies his dilemma.
Another wonderful aspect of this film is Robinson's performance as Morris' dad. Dealing with his wife's death has been hard on him. Again, so many of these stories involve some sort of tragic death as a way to exaggerate the earnestness of a character's backstory. Somehow, Hartigan's screenplay is able to overcome that clichéd obstacle and channels the despair into a productive healing process.
I don't have teenagers yet, my kids are still basking in early childhood. There are times when who they will be as teenagers shines through. It's scary to think about. I'd never want them to go through some of the stuff Morris faces in this movie. But, how else would they grow and learn?
Hartigan's film feels true, because it never tries to be more than it is. It doesn't feel pretentious and it doesn't reach for unearned emotion. It plays it straight and earns its keep.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a single-disc release that also comes with a code for a digital copy. The disc is packeged into a standard keepcase. A slipcover is included.
Lionsgate routinely puts out some good looking 1080p presentations for indie flicks, and 'Morris from America' is no exception. Shot digitally, it still looks great in high definition.
I was impressed with the depth the visuals had. There are times where lower budget movies can end up looking flat after being filmed digitally. Here shadows have depth and crushing is only slightly a problem (mostly during a couple nighttime scenes).
Detail is strong. There are a couple close-up shots that appear softer in detail compared to the rest of the picture. There's some lively color here too. There's one shot where Morris, competing in a talent show, stands in front of a backdrop featuring around a dozen strips of color resembling a rainbow. Each of the colors pops off the screen.
'Morris from America' looks quite strong on Blu-ray. Everything that we expect, detail, clarity, consistency, they're all there.
The audio for this release is impressive. It's a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix.
So, for the most part clear dialgoue is centered up front. It's a given that a film like this would be heavily front-centric. Lots of talking, not a lot of immersive action. However, there are a few spots where this mix really shines.
One spot where it stands out is when Morris stands up in front of a crowd at a crowded club and performs some of his own rap. At first the place is bumping with techno dance music, which provides some deep bass. Then the beats die down, and Morris freestyles. His voice echoes through the soundstage. It feels lik you're right there, in that cavernous room, listening to him. So, while there aren't a lot of opportunities for this track to show off, when it gets its chance it takes advantage of it.
Audio Commentary – Hartigan, Robinson, and Christmas all make an appearance on this insightful commentary track.
Making 'Morris from America' (HD, 11 min.) – This is a promotional fluff piece featuring some interviews intercut with scenes from the film.
Casting Tapes (SD, 4 min.) – A series of casting tapes provided for the actors.
'Morris from America' grows on you. At first you might think that this is just another teenage coming-of-age flick, and while it is definitely that, it feels like just a bit more. It's quite effective in its ability to provide honest and earnest emotion without feeling glib. The audio and video are solid for a lower budget film. It comes recommended.