Chad Hartigan’s slight but engaging fish-out-of-water coming-of-age tale stars Markees Christmas as Morris Gentry, a chubby, rap-loving thirteen-year old American boy unhappy about having to move to Heidelberg, Germany, with his widowed father Curtis (Craig Robinson), a soccer coach who’s had to decamp to Europe for his career. While Morris is taking German lessons from Inka (Carla Juri), who encourages him to try to connect with his classmates at school, the kid resists, preferring to keep to himself, writing his own lyrics—many of which his dad criticizes as inappropriate for someone of his age.
The trajectory taken by “Morris from America” is fairly predictable. Many of the boy’s fellow students make assumptions about him based on his ethnicity—he must like to play basketball, for example—and when he proves reluctant to join in, they become increasingly hostile. There is, however, an exception—and again, one you might expect. She’s a pretty, free-spirited older girl named Katrin (Lina Keller), whom Morris quickly becomes infatuated with. But she already has a boyfriend, a considerably older one, and though she encourages Morris to perform his raps at a student center talent show (which doesn’t turn out well) or even invites him on a road trip (with equally unfortunate results), the episodes are presented as learning experiences that leave him not at all older, but certainly wiser.
No less predictable is Morris’ developing relationship with his dad. Initially it’s loving but obviously tense: Curtis is supportive and sometimes positively defensive, as when Inka, who’s becoming more a protective older sister to the boy despite the fact that he opines the twenty-something might be forty (“old,” anyway), comes to their apartment with some worries about how Morris is acclimating. Morris’ later escapades with Katrin are occasioned by Curtis’ absence, and the fact that he leaves the boy on his own to search for a new job may not be the best decision a father might make; but by the close it’s clear that the duo are coming to a more mature understanding both of their relationship and of the difficulties they will necessarily share in dealing with an environment that neither will find entirely congenial.
The film is helped immeasurably by the performances. Christmas seems a little ill-at-ease on camera at first, but grows more and more comfortable as the story proceeds, and he’s a genuinely likable kid. Robinson, who’s mostly done over-the-top comedy until now (“Hot Tub Time Machine,” for instance), is more naturalistic here, and to good effect. Juri and Keller bring nuance to parts that might have become one-note, and while the rest of the supporting cast haven’t much opportunity to go beyond the basic motions, they carry off what’s required of them ably. Hartigan’s direction is basically straightforward, trying for something out of the ordinary only in an amusing scene early in which Morris imagines that the other visitors—and the exhibits—in a Heidelberg museum begin grooving to the music on his earphones. Otherwise the approach, and Sean McElwee’s cinematography, eschew stylistic flourishes, preferring a look that’s unmannered and actually pretty gritty. The locations certainly aren’t prettied up—nor frankly are the musical choices.
“Morris From America” doesn’t reinvent the wheel—it follows a pattern that we’ve seen frequently in the past. But it gives a sufficiently original spin to the material to provide a reasonably pleasant ninety minutes.