PARK CITY, Utah | “Morris from America” isn’t your typical coming of age story.
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, focuses on a pair of Americans — a widowed father and son — living in Heidelberg, Germany. The father coaches a soccer team. The 13-year-old son, Morris, is trying to learn the language and make some actual friends. And, to make matters even more trying, they are essentially the only black people in town.
The result is delightful.
In “Morris From America,” Chad Hartigan, who came to Sundance previously with “This Is Martin Bonner,” avoids both the clichés and banalities of this tired genre and has instead made something entirely fresh. This big-hearted film about that strange time in life when adolescents dip their toes into reckless teenager-dom is not to be missed.
Stars Craig Robinson (Curtis) and newcomer Markees Christmas (Morris) bring Hartigan’s vibrant story and script to life with their effortless chemistry and nuanced performances.
Curtis isn’t a run-of-the-mill father, and Morris isn’t the prototypical rebellious youth either. They are profane, they are sentimental, they are difficult — they are fully drawn characters with complexities, contradictions and all.
Morris isn’t having a great time in Germany until his sweet tutor (Carla Juri) suggests he hang out at a youth center to try to make friends. It doesn’t go very well — one kid gives him a hard time, while the others mostly ignore him. But he does become attached to a beautiful, troubled 15-year-old girl, Katrin (Lina Keller, an ethereal, beguiling Julie Delpy-type), who lets him tag along with her on her increasingly defiant exploits.
The film never goes exactly where you’d expect, and Hartigan and his lovely cast keep the energy up and the scenes moving throughout, whether it’s just a language lesson or an awkward talent show.
Hartigan also imbues the film with gorgeous cinematic flair that’s always interesting, if not always completely coherent within the language of the film. For example, in one scene, Morris is listening to a hip-hop song while touring a castle and everyone (even the stained glass windows and sculptures) bob their heads along with it. This surreal moment is strangely affecting, but it’s an odd one off, too.
Christmas, in particular, is a real discovery. He adeptly handled everything the movie tosses at him — whether freestyle rapping, dancing with a pillow (or at a rave), or shedding a tear. Hartigan heard about the young newbie actor from a friend who’d seen his YouTube videos “Markees Vs.”
After the screening, Christmas said he’s now trying to get an agent and a manager and wants to make sure he stays in movies. After a debut like “Morris From America,” that probably won’t be a problem.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr