Toronto Film Review: ‘American Son’

What was doubtless a potent stage play turns stilted and schematic in this Netflix translation of Christopher Demos-Brown’s racially charged drama.

American Son
Toronto Film Festival

As one segment of Americans complacently denies racism still exists, others consider discrimination true enough to worry about their loved ones’ safety every time they go out — let alone face a law enforcement official. That is the issue addressed head-on by Christopher Demos-Brown’s “American Son,” whose Booth Theater production from last year has been translated to film (or digital video, strictly speaking) by its original stage director Kenny Leon. With Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale running the gamut of emotions as parents whose biracial son has been missing some hours, this Netflix production is a strong spur for discussion on various hot-button topics.

As drama, however, it feels very much like an overly schematic recitation of talking points whose acting histrionics still seem scaled for the boards—a little too big and loud in their 90-minute close-up. The result is worthy yet heavy-handed, too often coming off as an editorializing lecture or essay in thinly fictionalized form. Set to launch as an Emmy-eligible Netflix TV offering on Nov. 1, “American Son” will be better suited to home viewing than its big-screen premiere venues at the Toronto Film Festival.

Eighteen-year-old Jamal Connor has been unaccounted for the past eight hours — far short of the 48 required for a missing-person report to be filed. But his agitated mother, Kendra (Washington), is frantically pacing a Miami police station’s waiting room at 4 a.m. nonetheless, insisting that the greenhorn on night duty, Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), “do something.” She says it’s completely out of character for prep school-educated, West Point-bound Jamal to pull a vanishing act. What she neglects to confess for some time, however, is that the boy stomped out after they’d had a serious fight, saying things they both probably already regret.

After a while she’s joined by the husband she’s separated from, white FBI agent Scott (Pasquale), who promptly exasperates her by getting more intel from the suddenly chummy cop in two minutes than she’d elicited in an hour. Bending official rules under pressure, Larkin accesses and shares the trickle of information that’s come through so far, ominously indicating that Jamal was in his car with two other African American youths during a police traffic stop hours before — a vague, seemingly innocuous event, but one that fills Kendra with terror of the kind of fatal incidents that spurred the creation of Black Lives Matter. Eventually a senior officer (Eugene Lee) arrives, interrupting the couple’s accusatory squabbling with more limited information.

Unfolding in real time within the single interior location, “American Son” begins with Kendra in a state of high agitation, and the emotional flare-ups only escalate from there. She’s alternately belligerent, tearful and defensive. For his part, Scott is an alpha male accustomed to getting what he wants, and whose high expectations (especially that his son transcend any racial prejudice by sheer excellence) as well as recent abandonment may have fueled whatever trouble Jamal has gotten into. These two lunge at any available throat, not excluding each other’s, so easily that at one point the police present feel compelled to deploy handcuffs.

Being the kind of case-pleading drama this is, it’s not at all unlikely that the parents’ worst fears will be realized. But we’d feel more for their plight (and Jamal’s) if their agonizing waiting game wasn’t quite so shrilly argumentative, with the cops and Scott alike falling into little traps of unconscious racial condescension that Kendra duly takes great offense at. We’d empathize with their pain more readily if we didn’t fast feel more sympathetic toward the never-seen son — with two type A helicopter-minders like these, no wonder he’s made himself scarce.

While the characters are in an understandably tense situation, Demos-Brown lays on the fireworks pretty thick, and the normally fine Washington’s emotional arpeggios begin to wear. Pasquale is less grating if also asked to go from zero to 10 too often, while the other thesps are solid.

But despite Leon’s attempts to keep things visually lively via some busy editing, a sleek look, the odd brief, impressionistic flashback and so forth, this remains all too evidently a photographed stage play. The overly finished language and theatrical intensity levels that might be potently effective onstage lose any pretense of naturalism under the camera’s unblinking gaze.

“American Son” has a lot to say that’s worth hearing, but the translation to another medium primarily underlines that this one doesn’t ideally serve the playwright’s message.

Toronto Film Review: ‘American Son’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 5, 2019. Running time: 90 MIN.

  • Production: A Netflix release of a Netflix Television Event presentation of a Netflix production. (Int'l sales: Netflix, Los Angeles.) Producers: Kenny Leon, Kristin Bernstein, Christopher Demos-Brown. Executive producers: Kerry Washington, Pilar Savone, Jeffrey Richards, Rebecca Gold.
  • Crew: Director: Kenny Leon. Screenplay, Christopher Demos-Brown, based on his play. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Kramer Morgenthau. Editor: Melissa Kent. Music: Lisbeth Scott.
  • With: Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan, Eugene Lee.