Morris From America opens on an ordinary day for 13-year-old Morris (newcomer Markees Christmas, excellent) and his single dad, Curtis (Craig Robinson). They squabble over old hip-hop. Morris yawns that it’s too slow. “Minimal,” Pops corrects. They’re bored. They put on New York Yankees caps and go get ice cream. And then writer-director Chad Hartigan’s camera pulls up from the sidewalk, soars over the street lamps, and we see the medieval German castle that looms over their new hometown an ocean away from the USA, a.k.a. the only place his dad could get a job. “We the only two brothers in Heidelberg,” admits Curtis. “We got to stick together.”
But that’s hard when you’re 13, swollen up with pubescent swagger, and your father’s plopped you in a dull town full of Euro snots who call you “Big Mac,” “Kobe Bryant,” and other insults Morris can’t translate. It’s hard enough being awkward and chubby in a culture where you know the rules. In Deutschland, where only a tiny percentage of the population is black, most of whom live across the country in Berlin, Morris can’t even blend. So he walls off the world with headphones and sulks, stomping around on long walks, and wondering — as we do — if that old German stranger bumped him on purpose.
When Morris falls for rebellious blonde Katrin (Lina Keller, a Paris Hilton clone), who, at 15, seems a decade cooler than every other kid in town, the film’s arc clicks into place. To the boy, this is a sunshiny story about opening up to love and techno. He’s blind to the way Katrin treats him like a pet, and the grasping Spike Lee quote on her wall. But Hartigan lets us see the shadows. “I hear black people are good dancers?” asks Katrin. A beat later, she blurts, “Do you have a big dick?”
He blushes. We blanch. These German teens in their Lakers jerseys see Morris as an exotic American stereotype: a rapping gangsta who plays basketball and smokes weed. They’ve put this shy nerd in a small box. And as the kid’s self-identity is still squishy around the edges — in the film’s first shot, his soft, babyish cheeks spill all over the frame — Morris might shape himself to fit. But this is his father’s story, too. As Katrin pressures Morris to get high with her DJ friends, a lonely Curtis plays with the electric toy truck he bought as a surprise, not knowing that he just missed the last minutes of his son’s childhood.
Robinson, a comedian, gets a chuckle out of the moment. But his Curtis is weighty and solid — he’s no buffoon. Robinson wears his character like a second skin, filling this widowed soccer coach with life experiences the script doesn’t have to explain. When a language tutor (Carla Juri) frets over Morris’s scribbled hip-hop lyrics, we feel Curtis’s skin bristle with defensive quills, sharpened from decades of seeing people assume the worst about good black kids. He waits until this white lady leaves before he spins around to confront his boy. “Fucking all the bitches, two at a time?” sneers Curtis. C’mon, son, you don’t know anything about that.
Like most coming-of-age flicks, Morris From America tries too hard to make friends. At least its scenes of unearned triumph are balanced by embarrassing bits that hit emotional bullseyes. It’s so likable I wondered if I was a sap for enjoying it, so I watched it again and liked it more. Morris doesn’t know that these miserable years will make him a badass, bilingual adult who knows the world is bigger than the block. If you told him today, he might not care. But that’s how big his box really is. He just has to take off those headphones and pay attention.