Markees Christmas. left, and Craig Robinson in Morris from America (A24)

Markees Christmas. left, and Craig Robinson in Morris from America (A24)

yellowstar In this unique fish-out-of-water tale, an African American father and son from Queens, New York, try to start a new life together in, of all places, Germany. Craig Robinson, normally a comedic actor (The Office, Hot Tub Time Machine), takes on his first serious role, playing Curtis Gentry, a recently widowed father and former athlete, who has taken a trainer position for a small football team in Heidelberg. His son, Morris, a 13-year-old who dreams of becoming a hip-hop star, struggles to fit in among his German peers. Equally bold and tender, Morris from America is the type of family film that doesn’t come around nearly often enough.

As Morris has yet to start school, and therefore does not have much opportunity to meet kids his own age, his German tutor tells him of a youth center he should check out. Morris goes, but he mostly keeps to himself, as his German is still very poor. From the onset, he is met with resistance from the other kids: Some of the older boys give him the nickname “Kobe,” assuming that since he is black and American, he must be good at basketball. Surely, Morris has a lot to learn about the culture here, and as his father warns: Watch out for German women especially. Naturally, on his very first day at the center, he falls in love at first sight with Katrin (Lina Keller), a girl two years his elder.

Besides his father, Morris’s main interactions are with his German tutor, Inka. Played charmingly by Swiss actress Carla Juri, Inka becomes his surrogate older sister. While she takes an interest in hearing about his crush on Katrin, and at times allows Morris to express his boyish crush on Inka herself, tension emerges when she finds Morris’s notebook, which is laden with fictional accounts of violence and sexual exploits. Compelled to do something about it, Inka confronts Curtis about his son’s rap lyrics, warning the former that Germans are not tolerant of such language.

Curtis, in turn, confronts Morris about modeling his hip-hop after other popular rappers whose lives look nothing like his. (He asks at one point, “Have you ever f—– two b—-es at the same time?”) Instead, he advises his son to rap what he knows: losing his mother, or trying to fit in with the German kids. Morris’s knee-jerk response is to reject his father’s advice, so he spends much of the remainder of the film blowing his dad off and sneaking around behind his back to meet up with Katrin and her friends at underground parties.

Exacerbating Morris’s struggle to fit in is that Katrin and her friends are much more into electronic dance music (she even has a cool boyfriend who tours as a club DJ). Hip-hop music, which is largely about toughness, greed, and replete with misogyny, does not translate well to European teenagers. For example, Katrin only knows who Jay-Z is because she recognizes him as Beyoncé’s husband. So, if Morris is to succeed with these kids, he’s going to have to find a way to merge the two worlds.

Craig Robinson is one of those actors whose comedic performances often have dramatic underlinings, so it’s a treat to see him finally step into a different type of role. He brings a lot of vulnerability to Curtis, and that is something we haven’t really seen Robinson do on screen before. In fact, he was awarded a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for this performance.

However, most of Morris from America rests on the shoulders of Markees Christmas, who gives a breakout performance. Proving himself to be a very capable actor, he plays the lead protagonist sensitively, but with sparks of justified attitude. As such, whenever Morris sticks up for himself, we cheer for him. Hopefully, this child actor hones his craft and we will see more of him in the future.

It’s also worth noting that this is an R-rated family film, in which Curtis and Morris talk and behave like a real father and son. They cuss openly in their house, and Curtis even practices rapping with his progeny. For their part, the German kids brazenly smoke cigarettes, drink, and get high on marijuana and ecstasy, just like real kids might do. The only real conflict is that they are vapid teenagers, and so Morris must decide whether fitting in with them is worth breaking his father’s trust. Like the recent Little Men, this is another small indie family film that exemplifies great, realistic storytelling.

Written & Directed by Chad Hartigan
Released by A24
USA. 90 min. Rated R
With Craig Robinson, Carla Juri, Lina Keller, and Markees Christmas