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American Son

Miramax // R // August 25, 2009
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Walker | posted September 15, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Film:
Some of you might not know this, but it's a fact, that even the worst actor can be good given the right script and director. The problem, of course, is that some actors never get the right script or right director, and they spend their entire career being bad. It was with this in mind that I watched American Son, starring Nick Cannon, an actor that to the best of my knowledge has sucked in everything he's ever been in. Cannon's mind-boggling lack of talent had left me wondering if it was possible for him to be good in anything, or if he was an actor beyond hope--incapable of being saved even by a good script and a good director.

Cannon stars as Mike, a 19 year old Marine who is about to be deployed to Iraq. Given a 96-hour leave over the Thanksgiving holiday, Mike heads home to Bakersfield, California. While on the bus ride home, he strikes a conversation with college student Christina (Melonie Diaz), who is also headed home. Mike's life in Bakersfield isn't much to speak of--a strained relationship with his family including a drug-addicted brother, and high school friends who have yet to grow up--which is why he seeks out Christina's company. Neglecting to tell anyone that he's headed for Iraq, Mike goes about his four-day leave as if nothing major is about to go down in his life. But the strain between him and his best friend Jake (Matt O'Leary), and his fast-track romance with Christina, leave Mike emotionally compromised as he prepares to face the uncertainty of war.

American Son is a cinematic mixed bag of tricks, resulting in a movie that works in some ways, and not so much in others. First and foremost is the fact that it almost turns Nick Cannon into a decent actor. Cannon has some decent moments, but as an actor he has a self-consciousness that never allows him to inhabit the moment and become the character. Even during the film's most powerful moment, when Mike has something of an emotional breakdown, it never feels like anything more than Cannon pretending to cry fairly convincingly. And when compared to the sincerity of Jay Hernandez's performances as a disabled war vet, Cannon's best moments feel all the more manufactured. Still, this is his best performance to date.

Credit for Cannon's better-than-usual acting should go to director Neil Abramson, who brings an intimate, cinema verite style to much of American Son. But while Abramson's direction is enough to give the film a compelling look, it isn't enough to give it the emotional resonance that is missing from most of the script. Eric Schmid's screenplay stops short of being truly moving, and instead lingers just a few steps beyond being empty and predictable. In fact, the script is predictable, and nothing happens that we don't expect to happen. And this isn't to say that the script is bad as much as it mediocre, especially when compared to films like Dogfight and The Last Detail, which also explored similar themes. Even The Lucky Ones--which had its story problems--mines greater emotional depth than American Son.

The problem with American Son is that when all is said and done, we really don't care that Mike is going off to war, we don't care about what will become of his relationship with Christina, and we don't care if he will reconcile with his friend Jake. Instead, we care more about disabled vet Junior (Hernandez), and Mike's father (Chi McBride), who are the only characters with any really sense of dimension and humanity. Tom Sizemore is completely wasted in a thankless role as Mike's stepfather, as is April Grace as Mike's mother. And the fact that you leave American Son wanting to know more about Mike's parents than you do him, says that there is a disconnect in the film.

American Son is not a terrible film, or even a bad film for that matter. It has some good moments, but it never reaches anything close to greatness. Having played at the Sundance film festival, it has all the trappings of an independent film that is looking to up its game by casting a known star, and thereby getting it more attention. Well, Cannon may have given the film more attention, but when an actor of his caliber is the best thing a movie has to offer, with a script that struggles to find true resonance, it doesn't matter who is cast. You still have a movie that languishes in a place that only inspires emotional ambivalence from its audience.

American Son is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen. The picture has a slightly grainy look (I think it was shot Super 16 millimeter), but the picture quality is good overall, with a nice color palate, clean transfer and no visible artifacts.

American Son is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital with optional Spanish subtitles. The sound mix is very good, with consistent levels and quality separation between dialog and music, and helps to highlight the haunting music score by Tim Boland and Sam Retzer.

Bonus Material:
Honestly, American Son isn't exactly one of those films that leave you wanting to explore bonus features. That said, the audio commentary with director Neil Abramson and producers Danielle Renfrew and Michael Roiff is solid, offering interesting insights in the production process. "On Leave in Bakersfield: Behind the Scenes of American Son" (12 min.) highlights the making of a few key scenes, but doesn't really amount to anything all that exciting. There are also two deleted scenes with optional audio commentary.

Final Thoughts:
American Son is a film that has some good moments, solid direction, cinematography, editing and a really effective musical score, all of which make it worth watching. It is not a great film, but one that manages to work despite its weaknesses.

David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]
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