‘Morris from America’
Director:
Chad Hartigan
Stars: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes 

“My finger’s too fat to get the damn thing off,” cracks Curtis (Craig Robinson), pointing to his wedding ring, which remains on his person years after his wife’s death. It’s a typically disarming moment in “Morris from America,” a very funny serious indie in which characters tend to bury profound anxieties in avalanche-sized jokes. Curtis isn’t looking for pity; in fact, he only refers to his late spouse two other times. But the latest from Chad Hartigan (of the acutely observed “This is Martin Bonner”) understands that people don’t often walk around broadcasting their pain. And neither should movie characters. 

In fact — and as you can likely surmise from the title — “Morris from America” isn’t even about Curtis. It’s about his son, played by the remarkable (and remarkably named) Markees Christmas. Transplanted by his dad from Richmond, Virginia to Heidelberg, Germany, Morris is a quietly intelligent, heavy-ish 13-year-old loner who spends most of his time with adults. Usually that means his father, who’s kind of a child himself. He finally makes an age-appropriate friend in Katrin (Linda Keller), a popular free spirit who’s only two years older. That’s a century in teen years, and the two wind up on one of those will-they-or-won’t-they? indie almost-romances that might instead become a poignant coming-of-age yarn.

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Ultimately “Morris from America” isn’t too different from the likes of “Heavy” or “Angus,” movies that seem to find the idea of a pretty girl mating outside her type unusual enough to make into a movie. But if it’s familiar in the big picture, it’s unique and perceptive in the details. Hartigan gently handles the issue of race without avoiding it, and he empathetically handles a group of characters too often afraid to say what they mean or prefer to stay chill than tackle problems head-on.

Hartigan treats them with both poignancy and hilarity, especially with Curtis, who struggles to be the cool dad, even when laying down the law. That means grounding his son when he says he doesn’t like ’90s hip-hop god Jeru the Damaja, then un-grounding him when he gets bored. Robinson is a revelation without being just another comedic actor turned semi-serious; as in his funny roles, he knows there’s great power in pretending to do very little. The movie shares his understatement and precision. It’s not a film that reinvents the wheel but carefully modifies it.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge