Chad Hartigan’s “This is Martin Bonner” is one of my favorite Sundance films of the four years I’ve been covering this fest. If you haven’t seen it, correct that error. It’s a subtle, moving examination of a unique friendship with well-defined, resonant characters. Three years later, Hartigan “graduates” from the Next program in which “Bonner” played (and won the Audience Award) to the prestigious U.S. Dramatic Competition section with “Morris From America,” a heartfelt, enjoyable coming-of-age story with elements that definitely work but a lack of overall personality that can be frustrating. It’s worth seeing for its genuine performances, including career-best work by Craig Robinson, but Hartigan sometimes opts for surprisingly conventional beats, resulting in a film that’s never less than likable but I wish was more distinctively memorable.
African-American 13-year-old Morris (Markees Christmas) lives in Heidelberg, Germany with his single father Curtis (Robinson), who works there for a local soccer team. Morris takes lessons in the German language from a supportive tutor named Inka (Carla Juri), but he’s relatively isolated. It’s not just a cultural or racial divide—Morris is at that awkward age when puberty and insecurity crash head-on. He’s emotionally supported by a father who encourages him to be himself while teaching him about the best of hip-hop music, but being a 13-year-old is tough enough when you’re surrounded by people going through something similar to what you’re going through culturally. Experiencing it in a place as distinctly different from Morris’ NYC as Heidelberg adds whole new degrees of difficulty.
Morris’ bored but relatively content existence is forever skewed when dad forces him to join a youth group at a local center. He’ll hang out with kids his own age, play sports, put on a talent show, make friends—what could go wrong? Of course, being so different from the German kids around him both physically and culturally, Morris is both an instant curiosity and threat to the teenagers around him who often see the world in black and white. The moronic boys wonder why “Kobe” won’t play basketball with them, but Morris brushes them off easily. He’s much more fascinated with Katrin (Lina Keller), a 15-year-old, tall blonde girl who knows she’s got a new project the minute she catches Morris looking at her. And, to be fair, he's kind of as interested in her for the way she stands out from the crowd as much as she is with him. Katrin flirts with Morris, inviting him to a party, encouraging him to freestyle rap at a talent show, and basically stringing him along as older high school girls who know they can sometimes do. There’s a fun bit of cultural give and take with Morris and Katrin. She introduces him to EDM; he introduces her to Jay-Z. And Morris falls deeper under the spell of an older girl, even though he has no idea what to do in the world of romance. Meanwhile, Curtis senses that his son is at a turning point and things are about to get tough.
There’s so much lovable honesty in the characters of Morris and Curtis (and even Katrin in a very different way) that spending time with them justifies “Morris From America” on its own terms. Robinson and Christmas have a wonderfully-defined father and son dynamic from their very first scene, and the movie occasionally springs to life with creative visual energy—such as in a gorgeous dance sequence and a memorable shot of a Katrin at a party—but I wish the movie itself reflected Morris’ emotional rollercoaster more in its style and tone. “Morris From America” progresses on a relatively predictable trajectory, which is surprising given the opportunities its concept seems to provide for originality.
Of course, not every movie needs to break the mold. And within “Morris From America”'s conventional structure there is truth. There are characters we believe and like, people trying to adapt to a world that presents unexpected hurdles to us all. Morris is encouraged by the three important people in his life—Curtis, Inka, and Katrin—to ignore the misogynistic raps of the professionals and write something truthful. At its best, “Morris From America” feels like it does the same.