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Chad Hartigan at Sundance. Photo by Jemal Countess

Chad Hartigan: Morris From America

10 June 2016 Nick Chen

According to Chad Hartigan, the coming-of-age genre resonates because of its universality. “Everybody has that awkward period,” he believes. “It’s a very easily relatable time in someone’s life. And I’m generally a nostalgic person.”

That’s true in Morris from America, a smart comedy-drama about being young, isolated and in denial. The feature marks Hartigan’s follow-up to This is Martin Bonner, and it comes to Sundance London having scooped two prizes at the January edition of the festival: one for Hartigan’s script, the other for Craig Robinson’s mature performance.
 
As the title suggests, 13-year-old Morris (Markees Christmas) and his father Curtis (Robinson) move to Heidelberg in Germany, where they seem to be the only two black faces – “the only black brothers in town”, as Curtis puts it. Morris is encouraged to make friends, but only speaks to his German-language teacher Inka (Carla Juri, unrecognisable from Wetlands) and hides behind the hip-hop of his MP3 player. That all changes when meeting 15-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller), a German girl amused by his rapping dreams – but does she even like him?
 
Hartigan admits much of it is autobiographical. “The girl I fell in love with when I was 14 is very similar to the girl in the movie. I grew up in Europe and wanted to make a film in Europe. A lot of the stuff that Morris goes through is stuff that I went through.” Even the cringe-worthy lyrics Morris writes – and is chastised for – are drawn from personal experience. “’Fucking all the bitches, two at a time…’ I really wrote those when I was 12, and really got in trouble with my parents finding them.”
 
There’s a major difference, though. Subtle racism surrounds Morris throughout the film. He’s nicknamed Kobe Bryant. He’s a teacher’s first suspect when a joint is found on the floor. Even Katrin, who means well, is perplexed by his unwillingness to dance. It’s the everyday comments that go unnoticed, but not by the person who hears it all the time. How did Hartigan manage to write for black characters without fetishing race?
 
“When you’re doing it, you try not to think about it too much. I think that the reality is, none of the characters in the movie are me and my specific social experience. I understand why I get asked the question a lot. But nobody asks me about writing for German characters, in which I technically know even less about, or female characters or dad characters.” Ultimately, he says, it’s about making sure everyone feels like a human being. “I wanted to write this particular movie with these characters. It was a challenge, but I felt like my heart was in the right place.”

 
Hartigan disagrees that the racial politics differ because it’s set in Europe and not in, say, his hometown of California “It’s the kind of racism that is a bit more casual, a bit more subtle than your more overt headline-grabbing racism. It would be no different setting it here or in France or in America. Kids are assholes all over the world.”
 

Morris In America
 

For the cast, Craig Robinson is obviously a major name from The Office and Apatow films; Lina Keller already had an agent and Hartigan knew “immediately that she was the girl”; but the crucial title role was trickier. Several actors auditioned for Morris (“we weren’t finding anyone good”) until Markees was discovered doing YouTube skits, which led to an audition – including sending a rap video. “He likes hip-hop, but he’s never performed it or written it or anything like that. He was very nervous about that scene. It was one of the last scenes we filmed. He had to practise it a lot.”
 
That last bit is key: music is a sign of alienation, but Hartigan calls it a teaching tool. Morris and Curtis live on Jay-Z and Notorious BIG, but Germany – as Morris learns from Katrina’s earphones – is into EDM. “He wants her to like his music; she wants him to like her music. It just blossomed from there.” The vibrant soundtrack pulls the energies from both sides, as does the film. Katrina is educated on the verses of “Juicy”; she helps Morris sneak out to club nights, try drugs, and get high on the ecstasy of ecstasy. “I’m a big fan of all kinds of music. I listened to it constantly when I was writing. It really helps me picture scenes.”
 
What’s surprising is Hartigan’s list of inspirations. On the arthouse side, there’s Roy Andersson’s A Swedish Love Story, Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy and Girlhood, and David Gordon Green’s George Washington. And then he brings up Can’t Hardly Wait and American Pie. Surely not? But actually, his explanation reflects the themes of the film.
 
“I’m a dual-citizen. I grew up in Europe until I was 13 and then moved to the States, and I feel a bit half and half. I love European arthouse coming-of-age films just as much as I love American teen sex comedies. And maybe if there’s a way of combining those two things, you come out with something that no one’s done yet. The pop aesthetic of the American side, and then the sincerity, the awkwardness, the austere nature of the European arthouse side. One minute you’re watching a slow-motion dance scene, and the next minute you’re watching this heart-rending cuddling scene.”
 
That blend is evident in Morris from America, a crowdpleaser that’s warm and watchable, but also poignant on discovering your voice, even if it involves the kind of embarrassment that hovers in your memory long enough to inspire a film 20 years later. Some of the dialogue’s richness must surely have been cooked up by the awkwardness the director hasn’t been able to forget, no matter how hard he tried.
 
But surely everyone can relate to that. It goes back to why the director loves the coming-of-age genre. “It’s an even playing field,” he says. “Pretty much everyone was not cool when they were 13 years old.”
 
Morris from America is playing this year’s Sundance Film Festival: London on Friday 3 June and Sunday 5 June at Picturehouse Central. More information can be found online.

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