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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Morris from America focuses on a 13-year-old African-American boy's efforts to find his place while living in a German town that's not exactly welcoming to a black teen who barely speaks the language. It's an honest, realistic look at youth life, which means there's some flirting, plenty of swearing (words like "f--k" and "s--t," in both English and German), underage drinking at raucous parties, and some teen drug use (pot and Ecstasy). There are also some crude/explicit racist and sexual references and scenes that show kids acting callous and cruel to each other. But Morris is a very empathetic character, and ultimately the message is that it's important to be yourself, no matter how difficult that may be.
What's the story?
Morris (Markees Christmas) and his dad, Curtis (Craig Robinson), feel marginalized in Heidelberg, Germany, where it seems they're the only African-American expats. They're certainly the the only ones we see in MORRIS FROM AMERICA, and it's clear that the main character, a 13-year-old from New York, is struggling to fit in. Curtis, a widower, works for the local soccer team (which doesn't have a great record), and Morris often hangs out at the local youth center, where the German kids either ignore him or tease him, sometimes crossing the line into bullying. Even Katrin (Lina Keller), the slightly older girl who seems to have a soft spot for Morris, alternates between flirting with and playing cruel practical jokes on him. It's hard to be 13 no matter who you are, and with the extra cultural and language barriers, it's clear that Morris is having a particularly tough time.
Is it any good?
This is a delightful fish-out-of-water comedy that's interesting and bold and brings something new to the genre. There are so many ways that Morris from America could have ended up like so many other teen-falls-in-with-a-bad-crowd films, but that's not what happens here. Instead, Morris from America shows us a real kid, with real issues, and a real -- as in living but flawed -- relationship with his father. The issues aren't huge on the grand scale of life, but they certainly loom large for Morris, a deeply empathetic character who makes this charming film so winning. He likes Katrin, but she vacillates between flirting with him and making fun of him with her friends. He wants to fit in, but he isn't sure about drinking or taking drugs with his new friends. Director Chad Hartigan and Christmas makes us care about this boy, who's not so sweet or so kind but is instead struggling with problems that anyone who's ever been 13 can understand.
The movie's moral center is Morris' relationship with his dad, who wants to be his son's pal but also has to rein him in sometimes. Curtis, played by an impressive Robinson, pushes his son to get out in the world but then worries about him. He's tough but sweet and loving, and it's a pleasure to see the father and son characters connect, even when they fight. The film avoids cliches and stereotypes about African-American fathers and sons, replacing them with an authentic portrait of youth, grief, the need to belong, and a search for deep familial connection. Morris from America may seem like a small story, but it has a huge heart.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Morris from America depicts teen life. Is it realistic? Relatable? Do you think Morris' struggles would be any different if he lived in the United States?
How does Morris respond to his classmates' teasing and -- sometimes -- bullying? What do you think you'd have done in his place?
Talk about Morris' relationship with his father. Is Curtis a good dad? Is he too permissive, too strict, or just struggling to raise his son the best he can?
- In theaters: August 19, 2016
- On DVD or streaming: November 8, 2016
- Cast: Craig Robinson, Carla Juri, Lina Keller
- Director: Chad Hartigan
- Studio: A24
- Genre: Comedy
- Topics: Friendship, Great Boy Role Models, Misfits and Underdogs
- Character Strengths: Empathy
- Run time: 91 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: teen drug use and partying, sexual material, brief nudity, and language throughout
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