“We’re the only two brothers in Heidelberg, man,” Curtis Gentry (Craig Robinson) reminds his 13-year-old son Morris (Markees Christmas) in writer-director Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America. “We’ve gotta stick together, you know what I’m saying?” Morris From America is a foul-mouthed, but gentle-souled, coming-of-age comedy that follows the Gentrys’ struggle to stick together as father and son—even as they adjust to their strange new lives as conspicuously black American expatriates in a provincial German town where the prevailing skin tone is not just white but marzipan-pig pink.
Curtis and Morris, we soon realize, are also mourning a beloved wife and mother who’s referred to only obliquely, as if any more concrete evocation of her (a photo, a flashback) would be too much for even the camera to bear. The audience never learns precisely what sequence of events landed the Bronx-born Curtis—a former soccer player who now works on the coaching staff of a less-than-successful German team—and his shy, chubby son in this unlikely place. But this very absence of information works on the film’s behalf, leaving the viewer as disoriented as the two shell-shocked protagonists.
Hartigan is at his most adept and original in the scenes involving this fractured two-person family, embodied to perfection by Robinson and then–16-year-old newcomer Markees Christmas, a nonprofessional the director first spotted in a series of homemade comedy videos on YouTube, causing him to rewrite his script-in-progress around a character based on the boy.
A second plot, in which Morris falls head over heels for the 15-year-old school beauty, Katrin (Lina Keller), and subjects himself to a series of humiliations in an attempt to impress her, felt more overfamiliar from other teen coming-of-age movies. For example, the sporadic appearance of the blonde and beatific Keller (a ringer for a teenage Julie Delpy) in backlit, super-slo-mo fantasy sequences brought to mind the camera-as-horny-teenager move in such high-school classics as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Risky Business. In fact, Hartigan (whose last film was 2013’s This Is Martin Bonner) has spoken of his love for the 1998 romantic comedy Can’t Hardly Wait, a movie that takes two decades of high-school movie clichés and whirs them merrily in a blender before serving them up sweeter than they already were.
Morris From America is both more nuanced and less sunny in its view of interteen relations. The interest that Katrin and, most especially, her bullying pack of pals take in Morris is initially motivated by the kind of racism-via-exoticization often experienced by blacks in Europe. Morris is constantly asked by his new schoolmates to demonstrate his authenticity: placed on the spot to prove his worth as a rapper, a player, or a gangster rather than as the quiet, awkward, secretly lonely 13-year-old kid he really is.
Gradually, Morris and Katrin develop something like a real friendship, maybe even—or is that only in Morris’ dreams?—something more. The look of the fantasy-like party scenes is bold and jubilant, with the young characters (sometimes high on drugs, sometimes not) picked out in silhouette against backgrounds of pulsing color. But however lively the filmmaking got, whenever Craig Robinson wasn’t around some part of me was just waiting for him to come back.
Robinson, best known as a comic sidekick in movies like Hot Tub Time Machine and Pineapple Express, and for TV roles on The Office and Mr. Robot, hasn’t been given many big-screen chances to showcase his dramatic gifts, which come as this slight but easy-to-love movie’s richest and most rewarding surprise. In one scene, the embattled Curtis tries to draw out his sullen son during a long car ride by telling a tale from his early courtship of Morris’ mother. The speech that follows is a tour de force and serious acting challenge: the kind of lengthy parental soliloquy, delivered to a dead-silent and inexpressive audience, that requires both an ironclad ego and a healthy sense of one’s own inherent ridiculousness.
Robinson invests that moment, and everything he does as this conflicted but loving dad, with so much brain and heart you find yourself hoping there are scripts with meaty dramatic parts stacking up even now on the comedian’s front porch. I wish there were more films every year like Morris From America, the kind that surprise you by revealing a hidden side of something—an actor, a genre, a situation—you thought you had figured out.