Review: ‘American Son’ LAFF ’08
Fourth of July weekend is a good a time as any for an appraisal of the dilemmas facing an “issue” film in our current political climate. Any project tackling a side of the Iraq War is often shielded behind larger partisan lines, be it anti-war, pro-soldier, or straight ahead documentation of the facts in an attempt to impress the grisly fact upon the public. The works most easily left in the dust of the politics and rhetoric are the personal tales, the little stories that lack the grandiose swagger of larger statement films but strive simply to portray intimately what is innately a human ordeal. Neil Abramson’s American Son follows 96 hours in the life of Mike, a teenager from Bakersfield, California who has signed up with the Marines and is almost certain to to ship out for Iraq. He’s home for Thanksgiving, in his old neighborhood locales where no one knows what he’s about to face, his impending deployment the dirty little secret hanging silently over Mike’s head. He’s surrounded by the faces of those he’s about to leave behind, and the ghosts of those whose derailed ambitions he’s trying to avoid in the first place with his decision. Then he meets Christina, a new face in all this old scenery and her arrival is both a surprise and a worry to him, a pretty girl from around the block who might just offer the last chance at good feelings he’s got left.
Many may wonder about the credibility of a film with Nick Cannon (Drumline) as the dramatic lead, but thankfully these concerns are put to rest shortly into the film. Here, Cannon’s performance is strictly measured, balancing Mike’s inner turmoil with his attempts to reconnect with the old ghosts around town. His single mom and dead-beat stepfather, his estranged and drug-addicted brother, his high school buddy Jake; they form a larger picture of the way some things never change back home. Mike’s interactions with Christina are awkward at first, but as they get comfortable with one another a surprising shift takes place and they both become deeply likeable courtesy of the struggles they’re facing together. Credit Abramson’s subtle storytelling, low on melodrama, high on simple observation. We don’t need much to make us feel for these kids, because they’re so obviously the same ones getting caught in the real world crossfire every day. Nick Cannon is surprisingly focused, Melonie Diaz is sweet and sure footed as Christina, and the rest takes care of itself. While Mike tries to reconnect with his old friends, the weight of his future starts adding up, and it’s not long before Mike is left with less and less to say to them. Christina’s grandmother requests a visit from Mike to a Marine vet not much older than himself, played by Jay Hernandez, and its very clear that there is no going back to the old way of life. All the mental and physical wounds are out in the open as the vet bounces manically from emotion to emotion at the sight of another like himself, switching between black humor and tears at a moments notice. Rounding out the relatively young leads are the old vets to back them up, with parts by Tom Sizemore, Chi McBride, and April Grace keeping things balanced..
This is a project that could have reached its inevitable climax in a number of ways, few so honest as the one presented. Could Mike desert his obligations, run back to his old life, maybe start a new one with Christina? There are many fantasies available for Mike to choose from, but ultimately only one way out of town; the same bus that drove him in. The climax of this film is based in the hurtful truths of real life, that things do not always work out, that sometimes a boy becomes a man when he realizes the only sure path before him. We grieve for his situation, and kudos to this film’s director for not betraying our trust that Mike’s journey will be one without an easy answer, or even a romanticized one. Unassuming and often surprisingly moving, American Son is a quiet conversation about the true costs of war, and those uneasy moments alone where the toughest decisions of our lives are made.