We have become so used to movie characters who always do and say the expected movie things that it's a shock to watch a film and encounter genuine humans. The new coming-of-age comedy Morris From America centers around a 13-year-old aspiring rapper played with astonishing magnetism by first-time actor Markees Christmas. What's remarkable about the film is that it sets up what could have been a bunch of pat, dumb culture-clash jokes about a black New York kid in Europe, yet never takes the easy way out. Instead, it explores and resolutely preserves its hero's humanity.
Morris lives in Heidelberg, Germany, a picturesque old-Europe town situated midway between Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and the border with France. It's a place with more standing Middle-Ages structures than black people, and indeed Morris is one of two: the other is his dad, Curtis (Craig Robinson), who works as a soccer coach for the local team. Morris struggles with the language, and, as Americans of any age or creed who've lived abroad will tell you, this is only compounded by the fact that everyone around him already speaks excellent English: imagine an older kid resorting to his second language just to bully you.
But on a much more elemental level, the short and slightly pudgy young man struggles with his sense of belonging, his complete inability to relate to his tall, thin, lily-white peers in the summer youth program. Racial questions bubble just underneath the surface of every scene, which the camera emphasizes by frequently isolating Morris in the frame, as though he's constantly trying to will himself away from every uncomfortable situation. (Christmas is so natural in the role that it feels like the filmmakers really found him wandering around Heidelberg by himself.)
Though Morris develops a crush on the pretty Katrin (Lina Keller), who sports a "New York" T-shirt, she's both too old for him and too pitying of him to offer much hope of fulfilling his romantic ambitions. The kid can only do that in his bedroom at night, when he throws on headphones and spits out his own rap lyrics that are hilarious in their complete sexual inexperience. (The fact that the movie is rated R, the same as last week's absurdly filthy Sausage Party, is further argument for the Motion Picture Association of America to start a Big Think about the context of bad words, not just their quantity.) Another bedroom scene, late in the film, finds Morris trying out moves on his pillowcase, a tender duet that's filmed with the care and subtlety of a traditional love scene.
Chad Hartigan, the film's gifted writer-director, has dealt with themes of loneliness and forced relocation before, in his 2013 micro-budget masterpiece This Is Martin Bonner. That movie, a drama about the bond between a man just released from prison and his rehabilitation social worker, also expertly captured an incomplete sense of place, and a halfhearted attempt to spark human connection. Similar to the role that the city of Heidelberg plays here, Bonner's alien setting (Reno, Nevada, where the prison is located) threatens to swallow its heroes whole.
Morris is a far lighter affair, swapping out the serious crime at Bonner's center for the more nebulous alienating factors of race, language, and adolescence. It's also more traditionally structured and provides ample moments of joy, most notably when Morris visits Heidelberg Castle and imagines the surrounding statues bobbing their heads in time with the music only he can hear. But a muted sadness remains. You can see it on the face of Robinson, who's mostly known for his deadpan one-liners in the margins of pretty much every American studio comedy of the last ten years. He gets some good ones here -- and a hysterical Notorious B.I.G. cover -- but also digs into a revealing new melancholy side as a father who's sacrificed everything for a second-rate version of the career calling he's always wanted. A still-grieving widower, Curtis is fiercely protective of Morris, to the point where he lashes out at the language tutor (the excellent Carla Juri, who starred in the 2013 German film Wetlands) for jumping to the wrong conclusions when she stumbles on his explicit writings.
Those writings play a role in Morris's stirring, bittersweet victory, when his crush and her musician boyfriend invite him on a road trip to spit some verses in a club for an adoring crowd. Modern European youth culture fetishizes American hip-hop from a distance, much like Morris himself does -- though Hartigan is smart about portraying the difference between loving something as a novelty and as a sense of belonging. It is hard not to feel a similar sense of belonging when watching Morris From America, no matter how far removed we may feel from this kid's dilemma. After all, we're only human.