Pitfalls of pubescence

It’s even scarier when you imagine them all speaking German.

It’s even scarier when you imagine them all speaking German.

Rated 4.0

This low-key gem from This is Martin Bonner director Chad Hartigan arrives just in time to redeem an entire summer’s worth of crass and mindless destruction at the multiplex. Teenage actor Markees Christmas stars as Morris Gentry, an aspiring rapper and typically hormonal 13 year-old boy who moves to Germany with his ex-footballer father Curtis (a revelatory Craig Robinson) following the death of his mother.

As Curtis tells Morris, they’re “the only two brothers in Heidelberg,” and the usual pitfalls of pubescence are magnified by Morris’ outsider status in the culture and with the language. The kids, tutors and youth center supervisors treat him like a criminal at worst and an exotic at best, and even when Morris forms a friendship with a bad-news older girl named Inka (Carla Juri), she just uses him to piss off her uptight mom.

Although she treats him poorly, inviting him to a rave only to prank him in front of her friends, Morris grows hopefully infatuated with Inka. Her attention runs hot and cold—she’ll ignore him one moment, cozy up the next and then straight out of the Jawbreaker song “Chemistry,” some older guy with a motorbike picks her up after school. The smitten Morris gets more and more involved with a hard-partying older crowd, putting additional burden on an already strained relationship with his father.

Morris from America isn’t shy about rolling around in genre tropes—it manages to be a fish-out-of-water story, a coming-of-age story and a slice-of-life all at once—but it rarely comes across as false or forced. Credit Hartigan for transcending the potential high-concept fuzziness of the premise by keeping the film grounded in authentic moments of adolescent angst and longing.

There is a clunky early scene where Morris wanders into a museum and imagines patrons, paintings and sculptures bopping along to the music in his head, but luckily Hartigan doesn’t pursue that sort of overt preciousness the rest of the way. Instead, the humiliations and heartbreak suffered by Morris feel pretty universal and relatable without sacrificing the specificity of his situation or the film’s overall genial nature.

The relationship between Morris and Curtis is the heart of the film, and their scenes feel fresher and less familiar than the teenage crush stuff. At its best, Morris from America is simultaneously empathetic and unflinching, as in the duet of scenes in which a frustrated and besotted Morris makes out with his pillow, while his equally isolated father dials a phone sex line.

Christmas may get the title role here, but Robinson absolutely owns every one of his scenes. Generally known as a comedic actor from TV shows like The Office and films like This is the End, Robinson gets his meatiest movie role to date, and he doesn’t waste the opportunity. He gets a long and crucial monologue toward the end of the film that is one of the most compelling and honest pieces of film acting you’ll see all year.