'American Son': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
An intimate, affecting dramatization of a nationwide crisis.
11/1/2019

Christopher Demos-Brown's play was adapted to the screen for Netflix by director Kenny Leon and his Broadway cast, led by Kerry Washington.

A chamber-drama setting for issues that have spilled out into practically every corner of American life, Kenny Leon and Christopher Demos-Brown's American Son places a black mother in the waiting room of a police station as the audience watches for 90 minutes as she tries, through rising and falling levels of desperation, to find out what authorities have done with her son.

Adapted from the recent play of the same title (written by Demos-Brown, directed by Leon), the film does little to disguise its roots. But any failure to expand into cinema's possibilities is overshadowed by the uniformly strong performances in a four-person cast led by an excellent Kerry Washington. For once, this is a movie whose straight-to-Netflix release makes perfect sense: From its own room-with-couch setting to more comfortable ones across America, the picture's intimate intensity should translate very well.

Washington plays Kendra Ellis-Connor, a Florida mental-health professional who finds herself in this abandoned, dimly lit place around four in the morning because her son, Jamal, didn't come home last night. That's not like him, but try convincing Officer Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), the flunky who's the only person around to deal with civilians at this hour: He behaves like he's doing her a favor by dealing with her, and when she finally convinces him to do some digging into whether her son is OK, his questions are geared toward identifying a perp, not a victim.

This introduces the first of many angles the film will present on race-based assumptions, and establishes the script's methods: Though we have our sympathies, neither party's behavior is entirely right or wrong. After all, Jamal is 18 years old, an adult who's entitled to be out all night without his mother's permission. Larkin pleads for Kendra to wait until the morning, when the lieutenant in charge of public relations arrives.

The boy's father shows up first. Scott Connor (Steven Pasquale) is white, a fairly puffed-up FBI agent, and estranged from Kendra — all three attributes certain to turn a tense interaction into a minefield of misunderstanding and misdirected emotion. A faux pas on Larkin's part sours things but reveals a shred of information — Jamal was indeed in a car, with two black friends, that was stopped by a patrolman at some point last night — that informs long arguments once the lawman leaves the room.

If the film's opening scene plays out with the rhythms of stage acting but quickly gets over that hurdle, this section is where the stage/screen dissonance can be hard to ignore. In a theater, we expect talk between a husband and wife to range far afield from the pressing matter that brought them to a room together; in a movie, the artifice is transparent (though Leon and DP Kramer Morgenthau make fine use of camera movement and close-ups). The filmmakers occasionally offer flashbacks that illustrate, often unnecessarily, things Kendra is saying to Scott. Could they not instead have imagined actual scenes outside this setting? It's hard to believe that a black woman and her privileged white husband have waited 18 years to raise some of the issues they discuss here for the first time.

But a little suspension of disbelief goes a long way, as the pent-up anger that comes with the scenario — Scott left Kendra for another woman (a white one) and has since spent nearly no time with the boy he thinks he has already finished raising into manhood — substantially intensifies the drama. It may even, in a perverse way, make us ready to hear things we already know with new ears. Between Demos-Brown's language and Washington's delivery, the story offers a new window through which to view the behavior of a black teen who suddenly affects troubling attitudes.

Some of the specifics here — especially Jamal's status as nearly the only black student, and an exceptional one, at a school Scott keeps reminding us is expensive and elite — may prompt film-festival regulars to recall the Sundance entry Luce, another stage-to-screen film about a black teen trying to find an honest way to move through the world. Compared with that overstuffed drama, American Son is laser-focused on what matters most.

The longed-for Lt. Stokes (Eugene Lee) finally arrives — at just about the worst possible moment for Jamal's parents. But the timing's convenient for the playwright, who can use this black authority figure (a generation older than the other three characters) to upend many of the story's arguments about prejudice, aggressive policing and citizens' responsibility to do as they're told when cops are involved. Lee is very fine, using his short time onscreen to remind us that, in oversimplified talk of cops vs. black men, too little attention is paid to the people who fall into both categories.

Stepping back, it's almost shocking how readily we accept that we never even meet the one character whose story this really is. Jamal is an athletic 6' 2" teenager with excellent grades and a West Point acceptance letter. He recently started wearing cornrows and clothes that drive his father to distraction and hanging out with kids neither of his parents has met.

And after much bitterness and shouting, only his mother is here to imagine what's going on in his heart. As the credits roll, that fact alone might make you weep.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Production company: Netflix
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan, Eugene Lee
Director: Kenny Leon
Screenwriter: Christopher Demos-Brown
Producers: Kenny Leon, Kristin Bernstein, Christopher Demos-Brown
Executive producers: Kerry Washington, Pilar Savone, Jeffrey Richards, Rebecca Gold
Director of photography: Kramer Morgenthau
Production designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Dede Ayite
Editor: Melissa Kent
Composer: Lisbeth Scott

90 minutes