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Morris From America
Part of Hartigan's success lies in pulling the perspective of his film back a bit. Most stories about teenage boys are focused on the boys themselves, made with the intent that the viewer will place themselves in the protagonist's shoes. Morris From America views Morris (Markees Christmas) more objectively by expanding the focus to his father Curtis (Craig Robinson) and his attempts to find ways to bond with Morris following the death of Morris' mother/his wife a few years earlier. There's also the unique culture clash that Morris feels as a black boy in Heidelberg, surrounded by white German teenagers. Morris' German teacher, Inka (Wetlands' Carla Juri, utterly charming) convinces Morris to spend time at a local youth center, but he remains introverted as a casual bully refers to him as "Kobe" and tries to convince him to play basketball. Morris' only avenue to American culture is his father, and his father enjoys old-school hip-hop that Morris doesn't understand.
At the youth group, Morris spots Katrin (Lina Keller) and is instantly attracted to her. Katrin is a couple of years older than Morris, but he manages to become friends with her, even after she pranks him at a party. Hartigan manages to convey two perspectives at once through the writing and performances: Morris' infatuation with Katrin, and Katrin's passive awareness of it. To her, Morris is a genuinely interesting person, and her friendship with Morris is not just humoring him, or worse, taking pity on him. Her kindness is genuine, but it's clear that she's not interested in Morris to the degree that he's interested in her, which takes a weight off the movie as a potential romance. Instead, the story focuses on Morris learning to take chances and do things that scare him, regardless of motivation. "It's always a girl, Mo," his father tells him, in a way that makes his wisdom sound more about men than about women. Hartigan also provides a glimpse of Katrin's relationship with her mother (Eva Lobau), which seems to be the opposite of Morris' relationship with his father.
Hartigan's other secret weapon are the performances by nearly his entire cast. Robinson has never been better, creating a near perfect movie dad in Curtis. He and Christmas have a believable rapport, filled with warmth that feels earned rather than overly sentimental. Hartigan takes the time to flesh out some of Curtis' own struggles at his job with a German soccer team, and an affecting moment when he calls a phone sex line because he misses his wife. Morris' relationship with Inka is also fun, who indulges some of his youthful energy while also trying to guide him responsibly. The movie never references Inka as a mother figure to Morris, and their relationship is only temporary, but they have a dynamic that is similar to the one between Morris and his dad, even though his dad draws a line between himself and Inka in one tense scene.
Of course, the most important performances are those of Keller and Christmas, and both of them are arguably perfect. In the Blu-ray's making-of featurette, Hartigan mentions that Keller hardly spoke English and did most of her performance phonetically, which is especially astonishing in light of how fantastic her chemistry is with Christmas and how fully the viewer is able to digest both characters' perspective on the relationship through the nuance of their performances. Christmas, who is making his feature debut, has excellent comic timing, massive amounts of charm, and a sweetness that informs the entire movie. A highly embarrassing scene where Morris dresses up a pillow in one of Katrin's sweaters and makes out with it might seem off-putting in another movie, but Christmas finds just the right blend of awkward and attitude that says so much about where Morris is coming from. The movie builds to both failures and triumphs, and not necessarily in the clean and conventional manner the story might lead one to expect. Instead, it captures something more important: the feeling of growing up.
Morris From America gets decent artwork spotlighting Robinson and Christmas, armed with a water pistol, draped in an American flag (I'm not sure I agree with the supposition that "nothing rhymes with 'Germany'", though). The one-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Viva Elite Blu-ray case, with a matte slipcover surrounding it that features a nearly-identical design, except for the billing block and some of the fine print. Inside the case, one can find a sheet with an UltraViolet Digital HD code.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.85:1 1080p AVC and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Morris From America gets a bright and boisterous presentation on home video. Although the film is more or less rooted in reality, writer/director Chad Hartigan goes for a bold color scheme with richly saturated colors that emphasize the green trees and yellow sunlight of Heidelberg, as well as the vivid colors of the costuming for both Morris and Katrin. Detail is perfect, with the only minor quibble -- possibly intentional -- being somewhat flatter contrast during the movie's darker or low-light club sequences. Those same sequences are the highlight of the audio track, with great atmospheric effects and surround immersion, and the movie is packed with hip-hop and techno music, rendered vividly. Dialogue is clean and crisp, and for a low-budget drama, the overall aural presentation feels nicely uniform, all part of a package. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.
First up is an audio commentary featuring writer/director Chad Hartigan and actors Markees Christmas and Craig Robinson. This is a fun, relaxed discussion about the making of the movie filled with familiar ribbing and jokes between all three participants, with Robinson occasionally hopping in to ask Hartigan questions about the genesis of the project. It's not dense with behind-the-scenes detail, but it's an enjoyable track, and it's kind of funny just to hear how much Christmas' voice has dropped since the making of the movie.
The one catch with the commentary is that it sort of renders the one behind-the-scenes piece, "Making Morris From America" (11:22) irrelevant, as every one of the stories recounted within is also on the commentary track, with one or two fleeting exceptions. It's only a shame that this decent piece couldn't have been expanded to include interviews with Keller or Juri. An enjoyable blooper reel (2:35) follows, as well as a brief deleted scene (1:18) which shows the viewer Morris losing his phone, and unsuccessfully attempting to give Katrin a hickey. The disc rounds out with casting tapes (4:28) for Christmas and Keller.
Trailers for Swiss Army Man, The Lobster, Into the Forest, Equals, and The Adderall Diaries play before the main menu, and are accessible from the Special Features menu by clicking "Trailers." No trailer for Morris From America is included.
Morris From America is one of the best movies of the year. Sweet and funny, awkward and authentic, it features spectacular performances by an international cast and a surprisingly honest look at being a kid. The Blu-ray's extras get a little repetitive, but the presentation is top-notch. Highly recommended.
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