If you know of Chad Hartigan, it’s probably because of his film This Is Martin Bonner. If that’s all you know of his work, like me, then Morris From America is like Chad Hartigan’s sophomore film. (Morris From America is actually Hartigan’s third feature, but Luke and Brie Are on a First Date, his first film from 2008, likely missed you.) Like a sophomore album, if you go into it expecting nothing more than another version of what you loved in his debut film, This Is Martin Bonner, you’ll be let down. But, like with a good sophomore album, if you go into looking for the continued artistic development of what made his first film particularly fetching—patient storytelling, gentle humor, richly shaded characters, and a keen understanding of a very particular experience that is likely not your own—you will be pleased. Morris From America is fine film that proves the unassuming creativity of This Is Martin Bonner wasn’t a fluke.
Morris From America’s story concerns a father, Curtis Gentry (a quiet Craig Robinson) and his thirteen-year-old son, the titular Morris (winning newcomer Markees Christmas) living in a modestly-sized German city. They are black, so they stand out, and like any cross-culture transplants, they are having a difficult time making friends and figuring our their identities in this strange place. As if puberty wasn’t hard enough already, why not throw language barriers and race relations into the mix, right? There’s only one scene where anyone does anything to Morris that is clearly racist. Mostly, ignorance is the issue. Morris is stereotyped by the other characters, though he also stereotypes himself, which is understandable given how difficult it must be to figure out who he is in a place where there is nowhere natural for him to fit.
At its core, Morris From America is a coming of age story, so, stylistically, it borrows the conventions of the era of coming of age stories – the 1980s. Curtis introduces Morris to 80s rap (Morris isn’t impressed), and his hoped-for girlfriend favors 80s-flavored, techno music. There are slow-moed infatuation sequences. Neon colors dominate the film. Two key scenes take place at a high school dance and a concert. There is frank talk of teenage sexuality. The film revolves around the relationships between kids and kids and between kids and their parents more than it does around any typical plot. There are fantasy sequences. John Hughes would be proud.
Most often, we stereotype each other not out of malice but out of unfamiliarity. It’s easier to put someone in a preconceived box than it is to get to know them. This is especially true in our junior high and high school years when we don’t know ourselves yet either. I’m not sure the other kids really get to know Morris or that he gets to know them, but they all do learn that there is more to each other than meets the eye. The stereotypes are broken down. (Once again, John Hughes would be proud.) And watching the film from the side of puberty, it’s easy to see that all these kids are going through more than they know, that some of the decisions they are making are going to do them more harm than good in the long run, and that their parents are in as much emotional turmoil as the kids. This is a testament to Hartigan’s skill as a writer. He creates complicated characters. To his credit as a director, he trusts us to pay attention as he patiently lets them reveal themselves to us through the story.
When you see Morris From America—and really, you should—don’t go in hoping for This Is Martin Bonner 2. See Morris From America to experience the same quality of film that This Is Martin Bonner is and to see Hartigan continue to mature as both a writer and director. He’s one to watch.