Morris From America is one of those little independents that stakes its claim in a few dozen theaters, and makes itself available On Demand. There are no computer-generated aliens slicing up downtown skylines, no charismatic collision of A-list stars, not even a lousy car chase. But the truehearted insights in Chad Hartigan's Sundance award-winner - about adolescence, about alienation, about parenting, about race - make it a must-see.
At the center of this sweet (but not too sweet) coming-of-age tale is Morris Gentry (the extraordinary newcomer Markees Christmas), a 13-year-old African American kid, a little on the heavy side and a lot out of his element: His recently widowed dad, Curtis (Craig Robinson), has taken a job coaching a soccer team in Germany, and has dragged Morris along.
Strangers in a strange land, neither father nor son is having much success assimilating. Morris stays home a lot, listening to hip-hop and making boisterous rhymes of his own. He wants to be a star; his dad reminisces about his days as a freestyle rapper, back in the Bronx, back in the '90s. A bonding moment, an amusing generation-gap moment.
Morris has a cheerful tutor (Carla Juri), teaching him German. He's dispatched to a youth center to make friends, and he does: Katrin (Lina Keller), a 15-year-old with a flirtatious smile and a rebellious streak. She smokes. She listens to EDM. Unfortunately for the suddenly smitten Morris, Katrin also has a boyfriend, a university student.
Still, Morris from America and Katrin from Heidelberg start hanging out. She invites him to parties. He imagines, back in his bedroom, that he is dancing with her - and more. The image of Morris clutching and caressing a pillow is priceless.
As for Curtis, he's trying to give Morris room to move, to breathe, even as the natural parental concerns - his son's safety, his son's state of mind - hang in the air. Robinson, best known for his comedic turns (in his own short-lived 2015 series, Mr. Robinson; a somewhat more successful eight-year run on some show called The Office; and that profound pair of Hot Tub Time Machine romps), delivers a wonderfully pitched performance.
Curtis is still dealing with his own grief, and dealing with the challenges of a new language, a new job, a new, very different home. The understatement Robinson brings to the role gives it dimension, heart.
There's a scene near the end of Morris From America - father and son in the car, talking about the challenges, the dreams they face - that is so beautifully wrought, so funny and poignant and inspiring, that it could make you cry.
It did me.
Morris from America
3 1/2 stars out of four.