Near the end of the Sundance movie Morris from America, Craig Robinson gets a Scene, with a capital S. It’s not an ostentatious display of emotion or anything, but it is a monologue, and a tender one at that. He’s driving, talking to his son, and recalling a key moment from his life with the boy’s mom, and how he wound up moving to Germany on a romantic whim. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking scene — and the movie knows it. Writer-director Chad Hartigan (This Is Martin Bonner) keeps the camera mostly fixed on Robinson throughout, giving him the spotlight and the space as the character simultaneously indulges in a fond memory and tries to connect with his teenage son. But despite all that, nothing in this moment feels forced. Both stylistically and emotionally, the movie has earned it.
The Morris in Morris from America is Mo (a wonderful Markees Christmas), a portly, shy African-American 13-year-old living in Heidelberg, Germany, with his dad Curtis (Robinson), who works as a coach for the local soccer team after having spent some years as a player there. Mo takes German classes with Inka (Carla Juri), a grad student who, in an effort to get him to make some friends, signs him up in a local youth organization. There, taunted by the “German dickheads” who are surprised that a black kid from America doesn’t play basketball and isn’t more outgoing, Mo feels even more alone. One of the older girls, however, Katrin (Lina Keller), shows some interest in him. Is she having him on? Just using him as a way of rebelling against her parents? At one party, Katrin lures him into a room, water-guns him in the crotch, and then gives him the pistol. The idea is that he’s supposed to retaliate, but that’s not how Mo sees it. To him, a pretty, popular German girl just intentionally humiliated him in front of all the other German kids. It’s such an odd moment – childish cruelty, but with a question mark that suggests that the connection is what matters.
Much of the film continues in that uncertain register. Though Morris from America has many of the trappings of a coming-of-age movie, it’s hard to get a read on exactly where it’s all headed, and how we’re supposed to understand different scenes and characters. Morris is fond of hip-hop and uses it as an escape. But when Inka comes across his notebook with some lyrics he’s written in it (Sample: “Mom’s on the pipe / Pop’s on death row / So nobody gives a shit if I fuck all these hoes”), she goes to his father, unduly alarmed. A lot of lesser films would use this incident to judge these characters, but Hartigan allows it to simply exist, in all its messy humanity.
But perhaps the most gratifying aspect of Morris from America is the father-son relationship between Curtis and Mo. They don’t get to see each other that much — dad is always working, and often on the road, and Mo starts going out late at night after Katrin comes along — but their need for one another is palpable. Curtis, still missing his absent wife, tries not to show how lonely he is. Mo, on the other hand, seems to be going through the same beats — musically, romantically, emotionally — that dad did many years ago. They’re father and child, yes, but they’re also best friends; they just don’t know it yet. As that realization slowly dawns on them, this understated, generous film quietly sneaks up on you.