A winningly executed growing-up comedy with a transnational spin, “Morris from America” examines the ways that ideas about differing cultures move in different directions.
Learning that and a great deal more is 13-year-old Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas, in a likable low-key performance), who is adapting to expat life in Heidelberg, Germany, with his single father, Curtis (Craig Robinson). 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.
Finding the right path forward is difficult in everyday circumstances, and what Morris deals with is several levels more complicated than average. His father is widowed and feels as isolated as his son. Curtis, who used to play for a German soccer team, works as a coach now, the only African-American on the field, just as Morris is the only black kid in his class. Curtis is making a good effort to raise Morris by himself, but sometimes he treats his son more like a companionable little buddy than a youth facing big challenges of his own.
The best connection Morris has with his new home is through his German language coach Inka (Carla Juri, doing a cheerful turn as the supportive, sensitive mentor). Her mature attention and advice is a great help. She is far removed from the 15-year-old vixen Morris imagines spending time with. His schoolmate Katrina (Lina Keller) finds Morris an entertaining novelty, peppering him with questions about how good he is at dancing, basketball and everything else she might enjoy. They share a park bench, splitting earbuds to share her favorite music, and then the heroic male statue in the water fountain behind them erupts in a torrent of amusingly carnal sprays. Katrina’s attention implies that she could become his high-maintenance best friend or dream girlfriend. Her energy and self-confidence draw Morris to her like a boy reaching out for his first firecracker.
There is a lot of dry humor and humanity and little sentimentality. Everything that goes wrong for Morris, and there’s a lot, occurs on a relatable level. Imagining himself as a gangsta rap star of tomorrow, he tries to impress everyone at the school talent show with his profane lyrics, a moment onstage that goes about as well as the prom night scene in “Carrie.” He’s not abused by Katrina as much as ignored, as if his clear feelings were invisible. She invites him to come with her overnight for an out of town concert just when Curtis, drawn away for business travel, has asked him to hold down the fort in their closed-off, claustrophobic household. How could Morris agree? How could he not?
There are romantic elements at play here but the film’s big love story is the father and son connection between Curtis and Morris. Each is at a point of life that feels as if they’re spinning out of control. And each embraces the other partly for anxious safety, partly from a soul-deep affection. It shows us how good Robinson, a comedy veteran, can be while working straight.