INTERVIEW: Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America”

21 08 2016

In case you haven’t noticed from talented actors committing major blunders or fouls in an interview, the press process is long and grueling. I’ve sat at many a roundtable where journalists ask the most basic questions that were probably answered in the press kit (that the same interviewer probably chose not to read). In many ways, I almost cannot even blame talented filmmakers for getting frustrated right off the bat when beginning an interview.

That’s not what happened when I sat down with Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America” – in case you thought that’s where my lede was heading. Quite the contrary, actually. He had a level of respect for my questions due in large part to the fact that he himself spent many years doing writing about film himself on the site In Contention. Hartigan was also just three hours removed from the rapturous premiere of his latest film in front of the largest auditorium at the Sundance Film Festival, which didn’t hurt either.

But search “In Contention” here on my site, and you’ll see just how formative that site was for my opinions and writing style in the early days of Marshall and the Movies. Hartigan served as their box office writer, a hat he wore on the side while pursuing filmmaking. We got to talking about both sides of his persona and how they didn’t really collide in “Morris from America,” a sincere and hilarious coming-of-age comedy about a black teenager (Markees Christmas’ Morris) and his widowed father (Craig Robinson’s Curtis) trying to acculturate in a small German town.

Chad Hartigan Sundance Award

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REVIEW: Morris from America

17 08 2016

Morris from AmericaSundance Film Festival

Diversity. Representation. Inclusion.

If you follow the conversation about what movies get made and who gets to make them, these buzzwords probably sound all too familiar. As the expansive world of filmed content continues to strive towards matching the demographic makeup of America, the oft-repeated dictum of “write what you know” takes on a scrambled significance. Who gets to tell whose stories while we wait for more storytellers? Can any meaningful progress be made for the characters on-screen in the meantime?

Chad Hartigan’s “Morris from America” offers a ray of sunshine in this debate. His accomplishment suggests our chicken-or-egg mentality when thinking about these complex issues need not guide all discourse. The writer/director spent a portion of his childhood living abroad in Europe and started writing a coming-of-age tale in that milieu. But to differentiate his film from the herd of similar flicks in the subgenre, Hartigan decided to change the race of the main characters as a way of further exploring their alienation in foreign lands.

How refreshing to see that a filmmaker can produce a work that is at once wholly personal and entirely open to assuming other people’s vantage points. (A most welcome side effect: this process also rids the film of the narcissism and self-indulgence that plagues so many indies.) “Morris from America” does not feel exploitatively race-swapped to push a cheap metaphor or argue a naive colorblindness. It strikes an appropriate balance between familiar and unfamiliar as well as comforting and daring. In other words, it’s a lot like the contradictions that define being an adolescent as a whole.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 14, 2016)

14 01 2016

This Is Martin BonnerRealism in cinema has a habit of rubbing people the wrong way, given that many directors who practice the style tend to pummel their audience with an abundance of brutally mundane details. But this is not a necessity, as Chad Hartigan shows in “This Is Martin Bonner.” His tender, affectionate touch throughout demonstrates how filmmakers can evoke the rhythms of the everyday without recourse to deliberate inducement of boredom.

In many ways, my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is as straightforward as its title. “This Is Martin Bonner” follows its Paul Eenhoorn’s titular character with the precision of a “to be” verb. Hartigan allows us to observe Martin’s life as he undergoes some changes that force him to reacclimate some. He moves to Nevada to work for a religiously affiliated non-profit organization that helps released convicts rediscover their place in society.

One man that he helps, Richmond Arquette’s Travis Holloway, seems to spark Martin’s engagement more than usual. Both seek balance in a world that demands labels and extremes, though neither immediately recognizes the similarities or the ways in which they can help each other. They simply go about their lives, trying to establish some kind of human connection to restore a little normalcy.

Though we only get about 80 minutes with Martin and Travis, the time feels wholly satisfying. Hartigan balances hefty conversations about family and faith with the quiet, tiny moments that speak volumes about a person. The mini-journeys of the two characters come across as quite real indeed – and not because they meet some standard of verisimilitude. Rather, a genuine sincerity shines through every frame of “This Is Martin Bonner.” Hartigan lays on the humanity while never turning the film’s heart into a fragile object. It is, in essence, a perfect example of how to achieve natural stories without resorting to pure naturalism itself.