Chad Hartigan’s low-key coming of age charmer “Morris From America” takes the fish-out-of-water tale and gives it a hip-hop twist, in the story of an African American teen learning his first adult life lessons in Heidelberg, Germany. Indie filmmaker Hartigan drew from the well of his own experience, having spent his early childhood in Cyprus, the son of missionaries.
Markees Christmas makes his film acting debut as Morris, a 13-year old fumbling through his transition from childhood to adulthood alongside his single father, Curtis (Craig Robinson). Both men are learning how to live without Morris’ deceased mother and are lonely in this picturesque small German city, where Curtis is coaching soccer. But they share an obsession for American hip hop, which serves as their common language and common ground.
Hartigan effectively re-creates the experience of diving into the world of music via headphones, as Morris ambles around the ancient European city, taking in the classic art to the soundtrack of classic and alternative rap. It’s the way in which he and Curtis bond, bantering over their favorite tracks, and the way in which Morris identifies himself in a cultural setting that doesn’t quite know what to make of him.
As is the case with many young teenage boys, Morris has a crush — on the Lolita-esque older girl at the local youth center, Katrin (Lina Keller). The flirty, wise-beyond-her-years Katrin might be bad news — inviting Morris to drug-fueled techno parties — but she’s also the only person to befriend him, aside from his German language tutor, university student Inka (a delightful Carla Juri).
To the detriment of her character development, Katrin is more device than person in the film. We get a bit of her backstory and a peek into her relationship with her mother, but her use in the story is to inspire Morris, to motivate him to put himself out there, to finally perform for a crowd. He wants to prove himself to her more than anyone else. The lack of perspective we get on Katrin is an unfortunate piece of the film’s puzzle that doesn’t quite fit. But the film is largely from Morris’ point-of-view, so the mercurial teenage girl is undoubtedly a mystery to him.
While Christmas makes a winning debut in “Morris from America,” the breakout performance comes from Robinson as Morris’ dad, who is struggling in much the same way as his son — few friends, feeling out of place, unsure of how to tackle this whole teenager thing. Robinson, known for his comedic roles in “The Office” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” is tremendous here — funny and heartbreaking and raw — as a dad who needs to parent his child, but also needs his child to be his friend.
Carla Juri is also a winsome and charming presence, and her chemistry with Christmas demonstrates the best possible kind of cultural exchange, based on mutual affection and respect. Ultimately, “Morris from America” is a deeply felt coming of age story that’s honest about the highs, lows and often awkward messiness of growing up.
Morris From America
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Craig Robinson, Markees Christmas, Carla Juri, Lina Keller.
Director: Chad Hartigan.
Running time: 1:31.
Rated: R, for teen drug use and partying, sexual material, brief nudity and language throughout.