Chad Hartigan’s “This Is Martin Bonner” (2013) established him as a subtle, original filmmaking voice attuned to stories of uprooting and dislocation, and he wrings a more accessible and no less specific variation on the same theme with “Morris From America,” a warm and winsome portrait of an African-American teenager adjusting uneasily to his new life in Heidelberg, Germany. Set to the pulsing hip-hop music that fuels Morris’ dreams and offers him refuge in a place that can seem friendly and threatening by turns, this coming-of-age dramedy explores how the challenges of being young, black and misunderstood can be compounded in a foreign environment, but goes about it in a grounded, character-driven way that never smacks of manipulation or special pleading.
Although livelier and more upbeat than “This Is Martin Bonner” in a way that should be reflected commercially, Hartigan’s third feature (he debuted with 2008’s “Luke and Brie Are on a First Date”) retains the same gift for dramatic concision and understatement, particularly in the way it avoids the sort of overly broad fish-out-of-water comedy that might have waylaid a different project. A shrewdly judged opener revels in the playful smack-talk of 13-year-old Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas) and his widower dad, Curtis (Craig Robinson), then quietly pulls back to reveal that the two are living in Heidelberg, a picturesque Teuton town where no one else looks or talks like them — though Morris is making at least a token effort to change the latter by taking German lessons from a big-sister-like tutor, Inka (Swiss actress Carla Juri).
How and why they ended up in this improbable new home isn’t fully sketched in until later, and it’s secondary to the movie’s focus on how Morris, a good kid with a tubby build and an understandably wary streak, copes with his strange new reality. Inka and Curtis encourage him to make friends and attend summer classes at a local youth center, but for the most part, Morris keeps his head down and his ears covered, relying on a steady stream of hip-hop (all original compositions by Keegan DeWitt, neatly sidestepping the need for expensive source music) to not only distract him, but also inspire his future career as a freestyle rap artist.
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Things perk up when the lonesome Morris catches the eye of a pretty 15-year-old, Katrin (Lina Keller), who strikes up a friendly flirtation, invites him to a summer party, and treats him rather better than the other “German d—kheads,” as Morris calls them. Katrin, who comes off as the sort of smart, strong-willed young woman we could easily follow into an interesting movie of her own, does her part to open Morris’ eyes and especially his ears (DeWitt’s score incorporates the propulsive EDM tracks that are her generation’s music of choice). Naturally, she also plays with his emotions and stirs his libido, as we see in a scene of privately enacted, pillow-abetted romantic fantasy that feels sweet, funny, awkward and tender in equal measure.
That sort of universally relatable sexual innocence stands in stark contrast to the explicit rap lyrics that Morris writes and performs in his spare time: “F—kin’ all the bitches, two at a time / all you can take for just $10.99,” goes a sample excerpt (actually written by Hartigan himself when he was around Morris’ age). In one of its sharpest scenes, the movie zeroes in on the profound gap between the vulgar, violent swagger of so much hip-hop music and the actual life experience of its youngest and most impressionable fans. “You don’t know s—t,” Curtis tells Morris bluntly, encouraging his son to create something authentic and lived-in, rather than merely repackaging someone else’s moribund misogyny.
Hartigan’s willingness to be tough on his young protagonist is what distinguishes “Morris From America” as an unusually mature and clear-eyed specimen of its type. Yet the filmmaker doesn’t let anyone else off the hook, either, and he has a healthy appreciation for the various micro-aggressions that minorities often absorb on a day-to-day basis. That turns out to be no different in Heidelberg, where it’s automatically assumed that the new black kid will want to play basketball, and a teacher knows exactly whom to confront first when a marijuana joint is found on the premises. (Even the well-meaning but naive Inka jumps to the wrong conclusions when confronted with behavior she doesn’t understand.) By the time Morris busts out his uncensored hip-hop stylings at the youth-center talent show, you can’t blame him for wanting to unleash some of that pent-up aggression, though the movie is sufficiently fair-minded that it’s hard not to sympathize with how everyone else reacts as well.
The third-act story beats are nothing we haven’t seen countless times before in superficially similar coming-of-age fare: a forbidden road trip, a triumphant on-stage climax, a father-son heart-to-heart, a romantic rivalry that leaves everyone sadder but wiser. But there isn’t a moment of it that doesn’t feel fully inhabited, and Hartigan gives the production a vibrant pop energy, whether he’s orchestrating a tracking shot across the bustling youth-center playground, or alternately slowing down and speeding up a scene of Morris and Katrin dancing with carefree abandon at a party where they’re conspicuously under-age. Sean McElwee’s clean, textured lensing lends the Heidelberg locations (with occasional shooting in Frankfurt and Berlin) a warmth and brightness that never feels touristy.
The supporting roles are well cast across the board: Keller has the sort of irresistible on-screen spark that brings Julie Delpy to mind, while Juri, unrecognizable here as the toilet-frotting heroine of “Wetlands,” nicely fleshes out the role of a student and teacher about to embark on a life-changing journey of her own. But the heart of the movie is the relationship between Morris and Curtis, and Hartigan excels at testing its soft spots and vulnerabilities; for their part, Christmas (a terrific discovery) and Robinson strike so many wonderfully varied notes — swapping penis jokes and bashing each other’s rap styles one minute, laying bare their hurts and disappointments with piercing honesty the next — that an entire feature could conceivably be cobbled together from their back-and-forth alone. The work of a filmmaker who knows how to listen to his characters, “Morris From America” shows how authentic communication becomes its own form of freestyle.