The story of a 13-year-old boy who moves to a new neighborhood and struggles to find his place, "Morris From America" hails from a familiar playbook. But the specifics of that scenario — Morris (extraordinary newcomer Markees Christmas) is African American, and he's living in Heidelberg, Germany — freshen up the formula. The dissonance of character and place in writer-director Chad Hartigan's followup to 2013's similarly low key "This is Martin Bonner" gives this otherwise straightforward, well-acted coming-of-age tale an added cultural weight. It's both sweetly understated and progressive.
From the moment Morris is seen in the opening shot, bobbing his head to a hip hop beat, Hartigan makes it clear whose perspective the movie will adopt. Sent to his room by his father Curtis (Craig Robinson, in his first genuine dramatic turn) for not liking nineties-era rap music — indicating the charming father-son relationship to come — Morris instead turns to contemporary beats that he practices alone by his bed. Socially maladroit in public and energetic on his own, Morris has plenty of reason to resent his surroundings. As "Morris From America" provides only glimpses of Curtis' job as a soccer coach, and scant details about the boy's absent mother, it centralizes its title character's immediate frustrations with his surroundings rather than getting mired in extraneous details.
At school, Morris faces racist assumptions by professor and students alike, though the 15-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller) shows just enough interest to win over his affections when she invites him to an after-hours rave. If her solicitations seem too good to be true, it comes as no surprise when Morris winds up in the crosshairs of a cruel prank. While Katrin insists she wants to be friends with Morris, her pity for him mostly registers as a condescending scheme to toy with his fragile state.
Morris himself doesn't know where to turn. Trapped between his well-meaning father's attempt to hang with his son and Morris' own inability to make friends elsewhere, he simmers with frustrations that ultimately find their expression in his rap music. Laced with vulgarities, Morris' compositions makes up for a lack of ingenuity with their noticeable rage. The story doesn't find him entirely liberated from his anger, but it offers an endearing showcase of his journey toward finding an outlet.
Though it maintains a muted quality throughout, Hartigan's script contains flashes of well-timed humor surrounding Morris' combustible attitude. In conversation with his nurturing young German tutor (Carla Juri), he reacts against her probing questions by turning the tables. Learning that her boyfriend lives in a particularly trendy part of Manhattan, he doesn't hesitate: "Man, fuck the West Village." Borrowing the cadences of a faraway land, Morris leans on his stranger-in-a-strange-land status as a form of empowerment, even as he resents his dad's attempts to be cool.
One hilarious bit involving Curtis' own fairly awful teen recordings of his hip hop efforts stands out because it suggests that Morris' isolated state doesn't exclusively involve his immediate environment. In "Morris From America," the two black characters deal with an alienating identity only exacerbated by the European setting. As the movie suggests that their loneliness could exist anytime and anywhere, its emotions have a universal power, as does their bond.
Christmas — a genuine discovery who commands his every minute of screen time with an adorable, goofy attitude — generates a fine chemistry with the droll Robinson, whose serious parental intentions run counter to his own bumbling tendencies. Morris' eventual attempt to stand out in the crowd find him following Katrin and her boyfriend on an aimless trip in which he can barely hide his emotions for the older woman.
The climax feels a bit under-realized, but never less than genuine. More than anything else, "Morris From America" excels at conveying the inherent power of companionship in a largely indifferent world. When Curtis asserts that he and his son are "the only two brothers in Heidelberg," it's the movie's coziest moment.
"Morris From America" premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. It has secured U.S. distribution with A24, which will release it later this year.