Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fortunate Viewer: "American Son" (2009)

One can naturally assume that Neil Abramson's "American Son" is going to be yet another in a long line of anti-Iraq War films. Thanks to a sensitive screenplay and excellent performances, that assumption is soon forgotten.

Mike (Nick Cannon) is home in Bakersfield, California from basic training in the Marine Corps. He has four days of leave before being shipped off to Iraq, an assignment he keeps from his friends and family. As luck would have it, he meets Cristina (Melonie Diaz) on the bus home, and the two begin a quick but tentative relationship. At home, Mike's life is about the same. He still doesn't get along with his stepfather Dale (Tom Sizemore), but loves his mother (April Grace) and half-sister (Erica Gluck). Mike's older brother is lost to drugs and crime, and his father Eddie (Chi McBride) still seems to smart from his divorce from Mike's mother as well as his fatherly failings.

Mike's best friend Jake (Matt O'Leary) is both using and dealing drugs, and is still angry with Mike over his absence. Mike treads carefully around Cristina's cautious family, wanting to tell her about where he is being stationed, and doing things like meeting Junior (Jay Hernandez), an injured former soldier, weighs on him.

The screenplay, written by Eric Schmid, from a story by Schmid and Abramson, is a series of often disjointed scenes taking place during the ninety-six hours Mike is home (the occasional onscreen countdown is both sad and necessary). Mike does try to cut loose, but he still wants to get as close to Cristina as possible, while dealing with the drama of the friends and family he left behind. While the screenplay is nicely paced, I have seen a lot of these characters before in other films. A boring four days' leave would have made for a boring film, but Schmid sometimes overplots the story. Mike's reasoning for not telling anyone about Iraq is also never satisfyingly explained. Much to his credit, Schmid never drags out the soapbox to deliver any speeches about the errors of war. In the under-appreciated comedy "An American Carol," one military character had a line that most soldiers are against war, and that is the truth. Schmid doesn't get preachy, letting his characters' reactions and worries come through all the better. Abramson's direction is fantastic. His use of actual locations works, and the working class has rarely been presented so realistically.

I'll state right away that this is Nick Cannon's best performance. I only know him from television work, but his acting is effortless and sympathetic. The entire cast is perfect. O'Leary is sad and scary as Jake, Sizemore is understated as Dale, and Grace is stoic as Donna, Mike's mother. In smaller roles, both McBride and Hernandez shine. Diaz' Cristina is both beautiful and intelligent, and her relationship with Mike is believable.

"American Son" is a small film that doesn't come from either the bleeding heart left or the gung-ho right. It is like a snapshot of four days that thousands of young men and women are replaying across the country. The title couldn't be more appropriate. (* * * *) out of five stars.