When you’re 13 and black and you’ve just relocated to picturesque Heidelberg, Germany, from city life in New York State, chances are the adjustment period is gonna be paved with some hard knocks and heartaches. And hard consonants. And so it goes for Morris Gentry, the spunky and tough, lovable and gullible title ’tween in “Morris From America,” who finds himself living abroad when his dad gets a job as a soccer coach for the local team.
Morris (played by marvelous newcomer Markees Christmas in a breakout performance) spends his days obsessively listening to his beloved hip-hop, learning German from a young tutor Inka (Carla Juri) and coming-of-age under the guidance of his widowed dad Curtis (Craig Robinson). The two share an interesting relationship; it’s filled to the brim with trust and love, but I’m not sure how many dads would allow their 13-year-old the amount of freedom that Curtis affords Morris in a strange new city. Still, the two share a most meaningful bond that speaks volumes even when there’s little or no dialogue at all.
The story begins in earnest at a youth center that Morris unwillingly attends (he’s never shown attending traditional school; perhaps it’s summer, though the film never establishes a time frame). There he meets racism from his white peers, who assume “the black kid” plays basketball, smokes dope and has quite the sexual appetite. Morris in return has two words for all of them: “German d—heads.” Morris is almost immediately smitten with the 15-year-old freewheeling and rebellious Katrin (the willowy Lina Keller) who teeters between genuine affection for him and a seemingly insatiable appetite to humiliate him.
Morris is gaga over Katrin; she can hurt him or hug him. As long as he can be near her it’s all good. He’s “gangsta,” he tells her (Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. are his idols); she’s all about EDM, smoking, partying and dropping ecstasy with her friends, romancing her college-aged DJ boyfriend and teasing her adoring Morris. (Unlike Morris, I found her meanness too much to bear.)
Written and directed by Chad Hartigan (“This Is Martin Bonner”), “Morris from America” smartly shies away from being too cute or too funny or too hard-hitting. There is an “even keel” sensibility at work that makes the storyline quite believable, for the most part (clichéd, “superior” Germans is a bit too trite). And I would have liked more moments between Curtis and Morris, between father and son — perhaps more of their backstory (we get few glimpses of it along the way). Curtis, like his son, is also trying to make a new life in a strange new city, and Robinson’s understated performance is quite moving (the scene where Curtis tells the freestyling Morris to rhyme about what he knows is as priceless as it is profound).
But it is Christmas who steals every scene, and rightfully so. The teen actor is so engaging and endearing (despite his character’s penchant for foul language); his screen presence at such a young age is a wonder. And when Morris breaks into a genuine smile, you can’t help but smile right back at him. And you will.
Note: Though the film’s main character is 13 years old, parents should be aware that much of the film’s score features hip-hop with extremely explicit language, language that is echoed at various passages in the dialogue.
A24 presents a movie written and directed by Chad Hartigan. Running time: 90 minutes. Rated R (for teen drug use and partying, sexual material, brief nudity, and language throughout). Available on demand and opening Friday at Arclight Cinema.