Chad Hartigan makes small, resonant comedies of alienation, a narrative niche in which he seems entirely content. He broke through with his second feature, “This Is Martin Bonner” (2013), about the friendship between two lonely middle-age men, and his latest film, the disarmingly good-natured “Morris From America,” is more than ever concerned with strangers in strange lands.
The title character, in fact, is a genuine exotic: a 13-year-old black kid from suburban Virginia relocated to whiter-than-white Heidelberg, Germany. Morris Gentry (newcomer Markees Christmas) has a chip on his short, stubby shoulder to begin with, as his mother has recently died and his father, a former pro soccer player named Curtis (Craig Robinson), has relocated them to Germany for his new coaching job.
Morris speaks no German and doesn’t really care to, despite daily lessons with a sympathetic tutor named Inka (Carla Juri). Until he sees Katrin (Lina Keller) at the local youth center — then he really wants to speak German. She’s older (all of 15) and naively imperious; to her, Morris is a curio, a victim, a possible friend.
We’ve been here before, many times, but not in this precise way or with these precise characters. While “Morris From America” trundles along familiar tracks, Hartigan’s eye for detail and individuality yields enough dividends to keep the film moving tartly and congenially along. The movie’s understated but very alert to the cultural and racial clichés at play — the way the German kids expect Morris to be a skilled basketball player and badass rapper, the way he tries to live up to the second half of that assumption with disastrous results.
At the same time, the lives of these pale Teutonic teens, with their medieval castle in the backyard, their chilly electronic dance music, and their studied Euro-contempt for their parents presents a mystery to Morris that’s as much existential as social. Who are these people, and are they the aliens or is he? Among other things, the movie is clear-eyed about the pains of being a 13-year-old boy held hostage by hormones and a body that hasn’t caught up to them. A scene in which Morris dresses up a pillow in Katrin’s cardigan for a slow dance and a discreet grind is both mortifying and sweet, two adjectives that sum up Hartigan’s approach in general.
“Morris From America” is welcome, too, for giving Robinson a chance to play something other than riled, scatological, and funny, which he has done to fine effect in “Hot Tub Time Machine” and other bad-boy ensemble comedies. His Curtis isn’t on screen enough, but when he is you sense a caring, exasperated single parent who’s doing a decent job of holding it together, who wishes his son could do the same, and who understands why that might be a problem.
As with all the people who wander through Hartigan’s movies, Curtis is relatable while remaining wholly his own man. If only Morris could figure out the same trick — but the movie has faith he will. In its unassuming way, it’s about faith, the kinds we place in ourselves, in other people, and in the future.
★ ★ ★
MORRIS FROM AMERICA
Written and directed by Chad Hartigan. Starring Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Lina Keller, Carla Juri. At Coolidge Corner. 91 minutes. R (teen drug use and partying, sexual material, brief nudity, language throughout -- i.e., nothing your kids haven’t seen)