Anchored by a solid performance from Nick Cannon, an eye for cross-cultural nuance and a mood of persuasively inhabited sadness, “American Son” is a sturdy, affecting portrait of a young man struggling to make peace with his relationships — and begin a new one — on the eve of his deployment to Iraq. This is conventional dramatic material played with an occasionally heavy hand, but sculpted with care and quiet assurance by helmer Neil Abramson. Given the lack of public interest in films addressing the Iraq War, even in a tangential, utterly apolitical fashion, the pic will struggle to find an audience.
Mike Holland (Cannon) is a 19-year-old black Marine on his way home from Camp Pendleton for four days of Thanksgiving leave before he has to report for his first tour of duty in Iraq. On the bus, he meets Cristina (Melonie Diaz), a comely Mexican-American teen and fellow Bakersfield, Calif., native; their casual flirtation is enough to leave Mike thoroughly smitten and determined to see her again.
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Back at home, Mike reconnects with his adoring younger sister (Erica Gluck), deeply spiritual mother (April Grace) and reserved stepdad (Tom Sizemore), but his inability to tell anyone where he’s headed suggests deeper emotional rifts and ambivalence about his decision. With regular intertitles counting down the hours until his imminent departure, Mike seeks to spend every moment he can with Cristina while putting up with the rowdy antics of best bud Jake (Matt O’Leary), who’s quick to vent his anger when it becomes clear their friendship ain’t what it used to be.
There are moments when “American Soldier” bites off more than it can chew, but to their credit, the filmmakers are less interested in cramming their story with melodramatic incident than in piecing together a rounded portrait of Mike in 96 hours (and less than 90 minutes of screentime). Even Mike’s fleeting encounters — his brief reunion with his estranged dad (beautifully played by Chi McBride), which leads to an even briefer reunion with his ne’er-do-well older brother — drop subtle, telling points about how Mike became the uncertain but deeply principled young man he is.
Eric Schmid’s screenplay (from a story he conceived with Abramson) impresses with its ear for both the coarse, sexual banter of teenage males and the lovely, awkward conversational rhythms of young love. Pic’s take on race relations — i.e., the polite distrust with which Cristina’s family reacts to her new boyfriend — is especially delicate, dovetailing nicely with the film’s snapshot of a diverse Bakersfield community.
Cannon carries the picture with an uncharacteristically restrained turn that allows him to retain his easy sense of humor. But South African-born helmer Abramson (“Defining Maggie,” “Without Air”) draws strong perfs all around: Diaz is fine as the somewhat underwritten, slightly idealized love interest, and O’Leary makes a powerfully volatile impression as Mike’s strung-out friend, who can’t keep a lid on his feelings of anger and betrayal.
Mike’s meeting with a disabled Iraq vet (a fine Jay Hernandez) reps the only hint of a political dimension in the film, feeling slightly forced even as it underlines the toll of the Iraq War on minorities in particular. Pic concludes on a simple, resonant and open-ended note.
“American Son” was shot primarily on location in Bakersfield, whose sun-bleached exteriors are ably captured by Kristian Kachikis’ handheld camerawork.