Morris from America has such obvious potential for greatness that its shortcomings nearly overpower its triumphs. The new film by Chad Hartigan (This Is Martin Bonner) has a terrific cast and a premise that ensures some novelty, but it fails to transcend its genre; it’s a perfectly agreeable coming-of-age comedy, yet a total, frustrating disappointment.

To start with, setting the film in Heidelberg, Germany—a choice justified, flimsily, by the plot—ostensibly amplifies our 13-year-old protagonist’s difficulty fitting in. Yet apart from a few first-rate establishing shots, the film has no sense of place, no real specificity or any sense that events unfold differently than they would anywhere else. Perhaps that’s part of the point—that growing up is tough everywhere—but it still feels like a missed opportunity to create the kind of nuanced culture clash Hartigan aims for. Sure, there are a few upsetting instances of casual racism directed at young Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas) and his father Curtis (Craig Robinson), but nothing they might not experience in a racially homogenous American town. Ultimately, the setting just isn’t mined enough for texture and detail.

The real heart of this story is in the relationship between Morris and his father, which evolves significantly over the course of the film. It’s great to see another side of Robinson, whose hilariously understated performance on the first few seasons of “The Office” was followed by several terrible seasons and two Hot Tub Time Machine films. Here, he doesn’t make a comedian’s labored attempt to reinvent himself as a serious actor, but instead brings all his verve and attitude to a multi-layered role. Seemingly even more than his son, Curtis grieves the loss of his wife in a few short scenes, alone at home while Morris is out trying to make friends. And as the film goes on, he finds his adolescent son becoming more and more withdrawn, leaving him with little support.

For his part, Christmas is totally authentic in the role of an awkward young teenager—easily embarrassed, terrible at putting up a front, caught between innocence and the alluring, drugs-and-alcohol fueled debauchery of a slightly older set at the youth center he attends. It’s too bad that this latter element has to play out in such a predictable form; soon after joining the youth center, he meets 15-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller), for whom Morris has some misguided romantic longing, despite some initial distrust. She sees something in Morris—perhaps an innocence that she’s lost—but isn’t quite willing to endanger her reputation by pulling him into her group. There is exactly one moment—in fact, only one, heartbreaking shot, of Katrin sitting sadly on the back of a motorcycle—where her character reveals some depth, her damaged home life offering an explanation for some of her choices. But for the most part, she’s a foil for Morris, the one person who pushes him to do things he otherwise might not (such as perform one of his raps in the youth center’s talent show).

At bottom, Morris from America is a sweet-natured, highly likable film, but director Hartigan could have made some more imaginative choices. His oddly baroque visual style, laden with pastel colors, bright lighting and symmetrical compositions, suggests an eye that could do wonders with a more inventive or inspired script—as does a fantasy dance sequence in Heidelberg Castle that feels cribbed from the more heightened material of someone like Rick Famuyiwa, who also excels with place-specificity and texture. There are a few expressive moments like this throughout the film, where the whole world seems to reflect Morris’s joy or despair, and his adolescent subjectivity comes to life. But too often Hartigan is content to ride lazily along familiar currents of storytelling even when his premise promises, or demands, more off-beat choices. Christmas and Robinson shine, but the movie around them disappoints.

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