Coming-of-age tales may be a dime a dozen, but writer/director Chad Hartigan sweetly subverts cliches with his latest charmer, an unassuming crowd-pleaser that doubles as a fish-out-of-water comedy. Morris from America may be small in scale, but it’s big in heart, and much of the credit for this goes to the believably messy father/son dynamic that serves as the picture’s lifeblood.
The titular character, whom we’ll come to know as “Mo,” is a slightly doughy 13-year-old, one of “only two brothers in Heidelberg,” as his doting but mostly absent father, Curtis, puts it after uprooting the pair from the Bronx and transplanting them to Germany. Mo is portrayed by newcomer Markees Christmas, and whether through inexperience or design, he plays the confused young man as an introvert, tentatively taking in his new surroundings, with little knowledge of the language or customs of his scenic new town. The real eye-opener, however, is Craig Robinson. Part of the large ensemble on NBC’s The Office from 2005 to 2013, the gifted comedian has gone on to establish himself as an indispensable supporting player in films like Pineapple Express, Hot Tub Time Machine and This Is the End. Given the chance to stretch his legs in a dramatic role, he’s this sweet little movie’s biggest surprise. His turn as Mo’s dad is a showcase for Robinson’s heretofore hidden talents as an actor of great emotional depth.
It hasn’t been easy for either Curtis or Mo, who are attempting to rebuild from the recent loss of their beloved wife and mother. It’s clear how much she still hovers over their lives, though Hartigan provides little information on what took her from them. But this is a father/son story, and on this note, former professional soccer player Curtis more than earns a mug as World’s Greatest Dad, doing his best to provide for his son, even while he privately mourns as the duo adjust to life as extremely conspicuous expats in lily-white Heidelberg.
Curtis has brought them here after accepting a job on the coaching staff of a losing German team; recognizing that his schedule will keep him away from the fragile Mo for long stretches, Curtis hires local Swiss grad student Inka (Carla Juri) to tutor his son in German. The shy boy gains not only a teacher, but a friend and confidante, a sympathetic surrogate sister who senses his loneliness, pushing him to venture out and make new friends.
And although Mo doesn’t necessarily make friends with any of the “German dickheads” who taunt him with casual racism at the summer youth center—calling him “Kobe” as they wonder aloud why this black kid won’t join them on the basketball court—youthful longing draws him toward Katrin (Lina Keller, the spitting image of a young Julie Delpy), a popular, slightly older girl. She’s way out of Mo’s league, so naturally, she begins hanging out with him. Katrin does enjoy spending time with Mo, and his own burgeoning fondness for her leads him to open up and share his passion for freestyle rap. Nevertheless, the undercurrent of racism remains present; when the 15-year-old Katrin brings Mo back to her house, she torments her conservative mother (Eva Löbau) with the notion that this “gangsta” might be her boyfriend, which the woman clearly isn’t comfortable with. And when a counselor finds the remnants of a joint on the youth center’s grounds, without giving it a second thought, he accuses Mo of being a drug dealer. So, it’s no wonder that Mo lashes out during the center’s talent show, which ends abruptly when he’s thrown out for performing a profane, misogynistic rap.
Nevertheless, Hartigan is a smart-enough filmmaker not to demonize this inherently good kid. Mo is at a mixed-up age, one made more difficult by the death of his mom and the limited time his dad has available to spend with him in this foreign land. We may laugh when Mo dresses a pillow in a sweater Katrin has left behind, pretending it’s the girl who infatuates him so, but this awkward, private encounter elicits laughter simply because it rings so true of memories of how we handled our own first romantic longings. Likewise, when Inka alerts Curtis to the rap lyrics that his son has been writing, he’s not so much bothered by the profane content of the rhymes as he is by the fact that Mo isn’t creating something drawn from his own experience. “What do you actually know about ‘fuckin’ all the bitches’?” Curtis laments. “And ‘two at a time’? You don’t know shit.”
Curtis, on the other hand, has known real love with Mo’s mother, a fact made abundantly clear during a tender monologue that Robinson delivers during a key moment in the film. Curtis relates the story of how he wooed Mo’s mother in a way that connects both the past and the present. It’s one of the sweetest moments in a film that’s filled with them, and it’s bound to reduce you to tears, just as it has the young teenager sitting silently beside him. “We gotta stick together,” Curtis concludes. They are the only two brothers in Heidelberg, after all.
Morris from America ***
Starring Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Carla Juri, Lina Keller, Jakub Gierszal, Levin Henning, Patrick Güldenberg and Eva Löbau. Written and directed by Chad Hartigan. At Coolidge Corner.