Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America opens with a close-up of a 13-year-old boy bopping his head to an old school hip-hop song with his father Curtis (Craig Robinson). Morris (Markees Christmas) confesses he’s not a fan, calling out the song for its lack of a hook. Offended his son can’t appreciate the roots of the music they both love, he sends Morris to his room. It’s playful, but he’s not kidding. That’s the kind of relationship Curtis has with his son; loving, but firm, where the two share more of a brotherly bond. Curtis treats Morris like an equal, entrusting the boy to make his own decisions, but challenging him to grow into a more thoughtful adult.

Originally born in the Bronx, the film finds Morris newly arrived in Heidelberg, Germany with his widowed father, who coaches for the local soccer team. “We’re the only two brothers in Heidelberg. We’ve got to stick together,” Curtis tells his son. A quiet kid, Morris doesn’t like his new surroundings, so he pours himself into his dreams to be a rapper, further making him an outcast in a culture of kids who only listen to electro and dance music. But when Morris’ German teacher Inka (Carla Juri from Wetlands) encourages him to make some friends, he joins the local youth center and falls for Katrin (Lina Keller), a pretty 15-year-old German girl.

Much of Morris From America follows the familiar beats of a coming-of-age story. The shy boy falls for the popular older cool girl. The cool girl likes the shy boy because he’s different from the jerks she’s used to. She introduces him to parties, to drugs and alcohol, encourages him to rebel against authority and gives him something to hope for. Katrin is the fun, thrilling thread that pulls Morris along his journey of self-exploration, and as sweet as many of those moments are, they’re nothing we haven’t seen before.

There also isn’t much beyond the surface of Hartigan’s characters. Katrin is merely a pretty blonde whose good looks catch Morris’ eye, and her rebellious attitude is only loosely defined by a brief reference to problems at home. Morris likes to rap but we never really learn anything about his passion. He prefers to sit quietly at the lunch table rather than play with the other kids, but the film doesn’t seem interested in defining much about its lead character. There’s so much to be explored in Morris, a boy without a mother and a young black American teen living in a German city. Maybe that’s not the movie Hartigan wanted to make, but it surely feels like a missed opportunity.

Where Morris From America does excel is in the moments between Morris and the adults in his life. The scenes with Morris and Inka are some of the film’s sweetest and showcase both Christmas and Juri at their best. Morris clearly puts on his cocky bad boy persona for Inka – “I get invited to things all the time,” he brags to her – but he also opens up with her, revealing his boyish charm and vulnerabilities. He teases her about her age and she pokes fun at his dance moves after seeing him at a party with Katrin. At one point when he wants to practice his freestyle skills, she beatboxes for him. It’s the kind of respectful, trusting bond you can’t find between a father and son, or two kids the same age.

Christmas’ scenes with Robinson are also touching. Robinson is best known for his raunchy comedy roles (see this scene for quintessential Robinson antics). But Hartigan’s film reveals his earnest side. This isn’t the type of 180 degree turn that aims to establish a funny actor as a “serious” thespian, but it shows Robinson at his most mellow and caring, and the character suits him. Curtis still has some of the comedian’s characteristic playfulness, but he’s much more grounded; a husband grieving his wife and a father doing his best to raise a good son.

One of the best scenes in the film finds Curtis angry at his son over a sexist, crude rap he discovers in Morris’ notebook. But Curtis isn’t mad at Morris for writing inappropriate things, he’s disappointed his son isn’t pushing himself to write creative lyrics from his heart. It’s moments like that one that lift the film out of the unoriginal territory it often wades into.

Stories about growing up don’t always need to say something profound, but they should take us on some kind of journey. Morris From America is a sweet movie, but it doesn’t take us anywhere new. Its sincerity is admirable, but if Hartigan had dug a little deeper he could’ve captured something distinct and special.


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