It’s tough being the new kid in school. You don’t know anyone around you or even if you will ever make any friends. There are so many circumstances that can make an experience like this unsettling. It’s even harder when you’re also new to an entire country and culture that doesn’t understand what you say or mean. This is the universe in which Morris Gentry finds himself.
Morris from America is a new film about this particular 13-year-old boy who also possesses a desire to become the next best rapper ever. Now, here’s his plan: Morris raps about a life he doesn’t know — pimping prostitutes, making money, and well, that’s pretty much it. His actual life, in his mind, isn’t nearly as ambitious. He lives with his single father, Curtis (Craig Robinson, “This Is the End”), as he tries to connect with kids at his school, especially a young, hard-to-get blonde he fancies named Katrin (Lina Keller, “SOKO Wismar” TV series). Oh, I almost forgot to mention, Morris happens to do this while living in a country foreign to him: Germany.
This comedy-drama was made by independent filmmaker Chad Hartigan (“This Is Martin Bonner”) and it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. For American audiences, Craig Robinson will be the most notable face, but the star of this show is Morris and he’s played by cinematic newcomer Markees Christmas. We see Germany from his perspective, which ranges from constant frustration to eager curiosity. While truly raw as a performer, Christmas is a likable presence who counteracts with Robinson in a believable father-son dynamic. As for the other actors in the film, it’s Morris teacher (Carla Juri, “Wetlands”) who turns in the most absorbing performance with such gregarious personality.
While no actor in this film gives a terrible performance, the main foils to Morris’ character such as Katrin (his potential love interest) have arcs that don’t enhance Morris’ journey. The friendship Morris has with her is truly a curious one that’s filled with unfulfilled teases and shallow inauthenticity. Cinematically, Morris from America takes on the identity of the world it’s in. Hartigan, it seems, takes pride in creating a small-scaled story with a minimalistic plot. The only thing grand about this concept is its audio selection of an energetic hip-hop infused soundtrack.
With that stated, hip-hop boasts a tone that drives a song to greatness. Sure, a rap song needs to have great lyricism, but many hip-hop songs have beats that have simple melodies so it allows the rapper’s voice to flow over the music — to become the music. The film decides to take this modest approach in its storytelling despite tackling dense topics such as personal identity and homesickness. And while most of the plot rests in how Morris fits in Germany, the stakes aren’t that strong. However, the film should be commended for showing a type of character we don’t normally see on screen.
And as foreign as Germany is for Morris, the issues he faces there could also happen at a school in America — where he’s the only black kid in a small southern town. Regardless, the story’s sense of culture clash gives the film the chance of wider appeal for American and European moviegoers, but its base will remain within the independent film scene. Morris from America doesn’t pull any punches or blow us away with any huge twists in the plot (and that’s fine). Instead, it chooses to stay consistent in its style. It just wants us to get to know a young kid in an intimate way: Showing us his voice and asking us to pay attention and listen.