‘Morris From America’ Tackles Race, Adolescence With Charm

Sundance 2016: Chad Hartigan comedy premieres to big laughs, love for hip-hop and a trace of “Little Miss Sunshine”

As Hollywood grapples with diversity inside its own walls, Sundance 2016 brought a charming and human tale of race, adolescence and identity in “Morris From America.”

Directed by Sundance native son Chad Hartigan (“This is Martin Bonner”), “Morris” tells of an African-American father and son living in a historic German town where all is quaint but not very welcoming. It premiered in the U.S. Dramatic competition Friday afternoon at Park City’s Eccles Theater.

Craig Robinson (“The Office”) is a Virginian football player turned European soccer coach who displaces both himself and his 13-year-old boy Morris to a culture where neither fit in thanks to their race, weight and cultural sensibilities among other reasons.

Markees Christmas makes an impressive debut as the apathetic boy who spends his days alone writing misogynist rap lyrics — but is equally captivated by the elegant ballerinas who practice near the youth center he’s forced to attend to make new friends.

Morris encounters leggy blond Katrin (Lina Keller), a spoiled rebel who falsely states Morris is her boyfriend to ruffle her mother, lures the young man into hedonistic Euro disco houses and is generally the kind of bad news you’d want your son to avoid. 

Hartigan ties together multiple themes — coming of age, the rarely explored topic of young men and body image issues, racial tension (it was specifically degrading to watch a 13-year-old boy suffer the accusations of a stuffy white teach after a joint is found and the adults assume it belongs to the black kid ) — with great economy.

Robinson deserves credit for making his small dramatic moments, like conversing with a photo pinned to the refrigerator of Morris’ late mother, land big in a movie filled with warm humor.

A youth talent competition, reminiscent of another Sundance darling “Little Miss Sunshine,” delivered big laughs. So did the father-son rapport between Robinson and Christmas.

With rap being a prevalent passion of Morris,’ the soundtrack is a valentine to old school hip-hop and some contemporaries like Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z.