“Morris From America,” Chad Hartigan’s charming new film, begins with a father-son discussion of hip-hop, an argument about beats, flows and hooks. It’s partly an affectionate intergenerational dispute; 13-year-old Morris (Markees Christmas) is skeptical of his father’s old-school dogma, while his dad, Curtis (Craig Robinson), dismisses his son’s taste as too pop. The conversation also provides a clue about the movie’s own strategies. It’s a pop confection with a rough, honest texture, real but not raw and suffused with an infectious sweetness that lingers after the final shot.
As Curtis puts it, he and Morris are “the only brothers in Heidelberg,” an African-American family in the perplexing and sometimes unfriendly environment of a picturesque German town. Curtis, a former soccer player in the United States, is on the coaching staff of the local team, and the rest of his back story is conveniently blurry. Like almost every other single dad you see in a movie, he is a widower, a shortcut to audience sympathy.
But the novelty of the setting and the familiarity of the premise — an adolescent boy navigating a bumpy stretch on the road from boyhood to maturity — combine to give “Morris From America” buoyancy and heart. Christmas, who was 15 when the film was made, resists the temptation to make Morris precocious or cute, and instead takes us inside the young man’s confusion. Like other teenagers, Morris is both smart and clueless, equally capable of sharp insights and colossal errors of judgment.
Adding to his befuddlement is Katrin (Lina Keller), a slightly older girl (with a significantly older boyfriend) whom Morris meets at the youth center. Katrin, a cynical and capricious queen bee, is beautiful and more than a little cruel. She genuinely likes Morris, which means that she likes to humiliate and torment him.
She encourages him to rap at the center’s talent show, with disastrous results. “Morris From America” is blunt about German racism, which has a different texture from its American variety, partly because young, right-thinking Germans consider themselves entirely free of ancestral bigotry. The movie’s most satisfying achievement is its sense of proportion. There is plenty of drama in a teenager’s everyday life — no need to sensationalize — and “Morris From America” feels true to both the pleasures and the frustrations of its title character.
If there is anything harder than being a 13-year-old boy, it’s living with one, and Robinson and Hartigan nail the particular challenges of that condition as well as anyone I can think of. Curtis, who has his own emotional and professional needs, must juggle an expanding number of conflicting duties. He’s supposed to be a role model and a pal, to set limits and set his son free, to leave the boy alone and to be there when he’s required.
Morris and Curtis live in a state of mutual bewilderment, but the love between them is the beat that drives the movie’s flow. The authenticity of some of the rapping means that “Morris From America” has an R rating, but if you know someone Morris’s age and swearing is not a deal-breaker for you, this is a perfect movie to see together as the new school year approaches.
Cast: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Carla Juri, Patrick Güldenberg.
Writer-director: Chad Hartigan.
An A24 Films release. Running time: 91 minutes. Vulgar language. In Miami-Dade: O Cinema Wynwood.