Saturday, June 16, 2018

A24 A-to-Z: #39. "Morris from America" (2016)

Scene from Morris from America
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Morris from America
Released: August 19, 2016 
Release Number: 39
Directed By: Chad Hartigan
Starring: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Carla Juri
Plot: The romantic and coming-of-age misadventures of a 13-year-old American living in Germany.

There was a lot to love about A24 in the summer of 2016. Not only were the theatrical releases proving to be some of their most critically and financially successful, but the DirecTV branch was producing some of its most successful films as well. Following the critical acclaim of Into the Forest, the studio took a lighter tone by making a film about a black teenager in Germany from director Chard Hartigan called Morris from America. The premise may have sounded dumb, but it presented a fresh new spin on the "fish out of water" genre that was all so popular. With a strong supporting cast, the film defied all expectations and became one of the most charming films, even as it featured Markees Christmas performing juvenile raps and cursing with his father. It was a film that showed how there was nowhere that A24 wasn't willing to go so long as there was a good story to tell.

The story technically began when Hartigan was a child. He had a love for rap music and wanted to be "gangsta." As a result, he wrote raps that were full of profanity and sexual achievements that he would never be accused of achieving. It wasn't until years later when his mother found those scribblings that the root of Morris from America came to pass. He felt that there needed to be an exploration of character regarding someone who could convincingly have written these raps. Along with his journeys through Europe that gave him a fascination with writing a story set in Germany, he was quickly convinced that the story only made sense from the perspective of a black child, being reprimanded not because the raps were vulgar, but because they were poorly written. The father wasn't someone who was typical strictness, but a single father wanting what was best for his son in an environment that he was seen as invisible in.

This is where the search for the right protagonist began to take effect. Hartigan became aware of Christmas' YouTube channel around this time called Markees Vs. It was started when the actor was 11 and doing acting almost out of obligation. When Hartigan found the joy of his character shining through, he hired Christmas. It was a bit of an adjustment for the young child at the time, though they quickly grew to like each other. The father actor, Craig Robinson, wasn't actually a father at the time of filming. He drew inspiration from how he behaved with his own father, believing that he needed to be both a paternal and maternal figure to Christmas. The film has several moments that were directly lifted from Hartigan's life, such as one scene where Christmas gets sprayed with water. The belief was that the film would explore the life of a child who wanted to be accepted while being precocious and exploring the hurdles of youth, such as studying ecstasy before going to a party. The film shot in Germany in July of 2015.

It premiered at Sundance in January 2016 where it received a lot of acclaim. It would go on to win the Special Jury Prize and would also be bought by A24 around the same time. The film would have a release via DirecTV that summer, earning $91,181 at the box office. Much like Into the Forest, the film's acclaim was a nice turn from the middling reviews of DirecTV that had been notorious up to this point. The film would receive an 87% from critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. Steph Cozza of Aggressive Comix would suggest that "I don't think I've ever seen a coming of age story told this well and this realistically, ever." Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune would agree, writing "While countless coming-of-age indies have followed the standard mold of following a new teen boy's first awkward steps ahead, writer/director Chad Hartigan's compassionate mix of charm, heartache and hip-hop ramps up this version handsomely." Of the few negative reviews, Noah Gittell of Washington City Paper would claim that "It's as shallowly effective as a bumper sticker." With all of this said, the film would go on to gain a Spirit Award nomination for Robinson for Best Male Actor.

While not one of A24's biggest success stories, it was another minor hit for a studio that would have a phenomenal 2016. Morris from America was another  sign that unique indie movies were capable of telling odd and different stories without getting too too abstract. It was a film with heart that reflected an interesting divide between father and son while exploring what it was like to grow up in a community that ignored you. It was a powerful film that didn't try too hard to be exceptional. Up next was another secondary film from the studio that found a major actor challenging himself in a post-Oscar win career. It was also one of the more divisive films of 2016, proving the decline of Matthew McConaughey was slowly getting underway.

Up next: Sea of Trees (2016)

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