In a radical change of pace from his darkly sardonic, 2004 killer road movie “Piggy Banks,” Morgan J. Freeman’s latest entry, “Just Like the Son,” travels a sunnier if similarly extra-legal path to redemption. A 20-year-old with a long rap sheet of misdemeanors graduates to felonies — but it is not like it sounds: He “kidnaps” a 6-year-old from an orphanage and transports the kid to his sister in Dallas. Pic relies too heavily on the undeniable adorableness of its diminutive star, but Freeman’s uncompromising straight-ahead approach cuts through the schmaltz. Too wholesome for the bigscreen, “Son” may find a home on cable.
For his latest petty crime, likeable but shiftless Daniel (Mark Webber) is assigned janitorial duties in an East Village elementary school run by a caring but no-nonsense principal (Rosie Perez). There he meets the precocious Boone (Antonio Ortiz), an old-for-his-years kid.
When Boone’s mother is hospitalized and he is sent upstate to an orphanage, Daniel steals a car and takes off cross-country with Boone in search of the boy’s runaway sister.
Picking the occasional pocket, shoplifting or siphoning gas to expedite the trip, Daniel attempts to separate his “fatherly” advice from his poor real-life example. Freeman has always been fascinated by the ambiguous moral line that connects means and ends, but here the end is so sentimentally imperative and the means so relatively benign that no real conflict exists.
Similarly, the interplay between Webber’s boneless, hang-loose Daniel and the extraordinary Ortiz, a pint-size charmer who sports an enormous Afro and displays the aplomb of a 20-year veteran, never quite makes up in naturalness and warmth what it lacks in drama and tension.
Pic feels underscripted and under peopled; for a road movie, there are remarkably few run-ins with locals to validate the down-times. All too often, the actors are left to their own devices.
Shot in Super-16mm, Yaron Orbach’s cinematography under Freeman’s self-confident direction belies the blandness of the action, while Dean Wareham’s and Britta Phillips’ travel-friendly score provides jaunty interstate accompaniment.