Coming-of-age story teaches the universality of rap music

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Growing up is hard enough on its own. Writer-director Chad Hartigan’s warm coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water tale “Morris from America” takes the issue and compounds it, telling the story of a 13-year-old African-American kid being raised without his mother in the far-off land of Germany.

Hartigan uses hip-hop, from Jeru the Damaja to the Notorious B.I.G., to help frame his story as young Morris (newcomer Markees Christmas) navigates his way through the murky waters of adolescence, where he deals with bullies, girls and substantial cultural barriers.

His father Curtis (Craig Robinson, dialed down from his usual outrageous persona) is a soccer coach and widower from the Bronx who bonds with his son through music. He instructs Morris that if he’s going to rap, he needs to talk about what’s real, which means telling his truth.

Those father-son moments are the movie’s strength, as Robinson and Christmas have a natural, playful chemistry together.

Things are a bit rockier as Morris deals with Katrin (Lina Keller), a 15-year-old who alternates between showing affection for Morris and pulling the rug out from underneath him. Just as Morris is figuring things out, she’s learning about herself as well, but Hartigan isn’t sure whether this scenario is a puppy dog romance or a form of sadistic torture. (Though in his defense, during adolescence, those can feel like the same thing.)

“Morris from America” feels thin at times. But at its best, its themes of growing up, culture gaps and the power of music take the specific and make them universal.

agraham@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @grahamorama

‘Morris From America’

GRADE: B-

Rated R: for teen drug use and partying, sexual material, brief nudity, and language throughout

Running time: 91 minutes

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