A sweet-natured coming-of-age story with more than its share of sharp edges, "Morris from America" follows shy 13-year-old Morris (newcomer Markees Christmas in a breakout performance) and his widower father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), as they attempt to make a life for themselves overseas. The pair have relocated from Brooklyn to Heidelberg, Germany, in order for Curtis to join the coaching staff of the local soccer team, leaving Morris to navigate his way through a sea of classmates who don't see much past the color of his skin.
While the plotline following Morris's attempts to impress Katrin (Lina Keller) -- the worldly object of his teenage affection -- feels a bit familiar, writer-director Chad Hartigan mines the story's unique setting for all it's worth as Morris's outsider status is exacerbated by the language and cultural barriers. Hartigan doesn't always nail the tone; fantasy sequences pop up sporadically with little payoff, but the film is so warm and open-hearted that it works anyway.
Where the movie truly excels is in the performances. Christmas is instantly endearing in a role that nails that particularly adolescent mix of awkwardness, embarrassment, and misplaced swagger. Known for his comedic turns in supporting roles, Robinson is given the opportunity to show his range with some more dramatic moments, and he knocks it out of the park. He's wonderful as a father new to the world of solo parenting, and struggling to help mold his son into a man without squashing his independence. It's a remarkably affectionate, highly-attuned performance that may just rank among the year's best.