Morris from America (2016)

electrickchildren

fourstar

The classic The Onion‘s piece “Cool Dad Raising Daughter on Media that Will Put Her Entirely Out of Touch with Her Generation” has long been one of the satirical publication’s most often shared gags. It’s a joke that likely hits home most with nerd parents who strive to raise their kids with the “right” movies, music, and books without realizing how out of touch their supposedly cool offspring will be with their peers on the schoolyard as a result. As often as I’ve seen that article shared online, I don’t think I’ve ever seen its sentiment reflected in a work of art as precisely or endearingly as it is in the 2016 comedy Morris from America. Our hapless “cool dad” in this scenario is The Office vet Craig Robinson, appearing here as an American soccer coach raising his young son in Germany while working for a middling team. His son, the titular Morris, is frustrated with his father both for stationing him in a foreign country against his will and for insisting that he listen to old school hip-hop instead of chart-topping pop & rap. His alienation would be striking enough in an American setting, but in a foreign culture he’s especially stuck, isolated in the post-modern void of his dad’s design. The movie starts with this extreme example of that “cool dad”/alienated kid Onion article scenario as a launching point and somehow turns it into a touching, intimate, and surprisingly brave coming of age comedy matched last year only by the heights of The Edge of Seventeen.

Setting this particular tale of awkward American adolescence in Germany feels almost like a necessity, since 90s throwback nostalgia is in full swing in our current cultural climate. If the film were set in New York, Morris might’ve felt oddly at home with his peers, despite his father’s best efforts to obscure & isolate his tastes in a bygone era. In Germany, there’s no chance of that camaraderie. These kids are heavily into EDM, with all of the sex & drug-fueled chaos that culture implies, and Morris is ill-prepared to speak their language (both literally & figuratively) thanks to his dad insisting that he pay more attention to relics like cassette tapes & Ready to Die than anything that could be considered “dance music”. As Morris strives to figure out who he is as a person in a place that’s so foreign to his sensibilities, he often finds him lying to anyone who’ll listen. He lies about his age to older girls to impress them & flirt; he lies to his dad about the kinds of parties he sneaks off to at night; he lies in his own freestyle rhymes about how macho & “gangster” he is between nerdy bumblings & sips of hot chocolate. As the story goes on, Morris makes major mistakes, lands minor successes, and becomes confident in who he is through the painful process of growing up. It’s all very standard, coming-of-age fodder, except that the film smartly doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to topics like the embarrassment of teen sexuality or the racism its protagonist encounters as the only young black man in his social circle. The movie may appear to tell a very familiar story, but it does so smartly and with satisfying specifics in its defining details that makes it feel like a personal work instead of a genre experience.

It’s difficult to convey what makes Morris from America unique within its genre. Craig Robinson is an always-welcome presence; I was delighted by the inclusion of my beloved Wetlands‘s Carla Juri in the cast; there’s stray moments of intense visual craft in a location choice or a or a fantasy sequence where old world art bobs along with old school hip-hop; it adopts the hip-hop kung-fu of The Get Down without any of the baffling blunders that show stumbles into. These are all stray delights in a simple, streamlined work, but they aren’t what makes it special. Early on in the film, Craig Robinson’s “cool dad” hip-hop nerd explains to his son that 90s rap production works so well because the beat is “not overpowering the rhyme, but supports the rhyme.” Morris from America is a low budget comedy with style & specificity to spare in its choice of location & soundtrack, but it works in much the same way. Its style and its rhythm never overpower its story of teen self-acceptance, but rather support it with a fresh, interesting context that makes the coming of age formula feel new & intimate again. It’s a low-key comedy that surprises both in its frank honesty & its quiet attention to craft. If it were a record or a cassette, it’d be the exact kind of discovery a cool dad or their perpetually-alienated kid would find great pleasure in discovering while digging through dusty old crates of forgotten media relics.

-Brandon Ledet

Phoenix (2015)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

I’ve been putting off watching Phoenix, despite it appearing on many Best of 2015 lists, due to the grim nature of its pedigree as a Holocaust survivor’s tale. Its recent appearance on Netflix’s streaming service made watching the film too convenient to avoid, though, so I finally bit the bullet. It turns out my apprehension was far from unfounded. Phoenix is a rather grim slowburner about an Auschwitz survivor trying to piece her life back together in a post-war Germany. It’s a frustrating film & not a fun watch by any means, but it is most certainly worth the emotional effort. By telling a very specific, limited-scope story about a handful of people trying to recreate a way of life that’s been lost forever, Phoenix captures an aspect of war’s toll that a lot of films often overlook. Instead of portraying the heroes & villains who fight it out on the battlefield, it’s much more concerned with the men & women who are left to sift through the rubble, both literal & metaphorical.

Despite loved ones’ insistence that she move to Palestine to help establish a Jewish state, a Holocaust survivor moves back to Germany to find her husband. Left horrifically scarred by concentration camp atrocities (and initially wearing a bandage that recalls the women of Goodnight Mommy & Eyes Without a Face), she undergoes plastic surgery that normalizes, but forever alters her appearance. She looks similar, but not quite identical, to her pre-war self, just as the state of her homeland has been forever transformed. With her entire family dead or missing, she tries to re-establish her relationship with a husband who treats her like a total stranger due to her change in appearance. Instead of telling him outright who she is, she allows him to slowly get the picture, perhaps in a bid to prove to herself that her pre-war self still exists in some way, that her identity didn’t perish forever in Auschwitz. The problem is that her husband has also been forever altered by the war & the romance she’s trying to recapture is no different from the bombed-out buildings & ripped to shreds Germany that serve as haunting reminders of their past.

Again, Phoenix is far from light entertainment. My own Best of 2015 list doesn’t include anything too comparable to the film in terms of emotional severity (except maybe The Diary of a Teenage Girl or Felt), but that’s more an indication of my personal inclination for over-the-top absurdity than it is of Phoenix’s quality. This is a really tight, surprisingly understated drama with one of the most satisfying final scenes in recent memory. Its use of the song “Speak Low”, which includes the haunting lyrics “Love is a spark lost in the dark too soon,” is especially commendable, as it’s incorporated several times throughout the film with great tonal & narrative consequence. If you’re looking for a solid, grim drama with an emotionally tender gut punch at its conclusion, this film is highly recommendable. It’s not the kind of experience I put myself through often, but I’m glad I put in the effort here.

-Brandon Ledet