BWW Review: AMERICAN SON's urgency and powerhouse cast make the best of this stage-to-screen transition
AMERICAN SON is the most recent Broadway-based story to be reimagined for film, but what makes it particularly special is the fact that play's original cast reprise their roles, allowing audiences the chance to take in the timely story and gripping performances from the comfort of home. Adapted from Christopher Demos-Brown's play and directed by Kenny Leon (who also directed the stage production in New York), AMERICAN SON is a dialogue-driven examination of racism, police and civilian relations, and Black identity set in a Floridian police station.
While the film won't land on Netflix until November 2, its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival gave audiences the chance to experience it - likely for the only time - on a big screen among a crowd. What the film delivers is 90 minutes of raw emotion delivered by an acclaimed stage cast, regardless of the unnecessary flashback scenes peppered throughout.
As the titular "son's" mother, Kendra (Kerry Washington) paces an empty police station waiting room in the early hours of the morning. While speaking with the newbie cop stuck on the night shift Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), it's revealed that her son Jamal didn't come home last night, and Washington's mixture of motherly panic and fury is extremely effective against Jordan's nonchalant attitude. Their back-and-forth while Kendra describes her child, peppered by Larkin's racist inquiries that are in his words "just protocol," immediately sets the tone of the film. It's also in this interaction where Jordan does a great job of ensuring his character isn't just an antagonist to what Kendra wants, but that he's a human being with a responsibility to follow protocol, and has a family of his own to worry about.
Larkin's failure to reveal information to Kendra is fully revealed when her estranged husband Scott (Steven Pasquale) enters, FBI-badge on and unable to get a word in while, Larkin, not knowing his relationship to Jamal and Kendra, reveals new information to him that only multiplies the tension on screen. Pasquale delivers a strong portrayal of a disconnected father, and in his numerous scenes with Washington details about their relationship and his personal biases (many stemming from his inherent racism) come forth. Some of their talking points seem like things that real people would have discussed earlier in an 18-year relationship, and the flashback sequences are a distracting removal from the situation, but Washington and Pasquale are a delight to watch rip into, and support, one another.
The ongoing conflicts within the narrative come to a boiling point when Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee) finally arrives. Tensions flare and the absence of information leads to a physical altercation and Scott in handcuffs - and the agreement to let the issue go with good behaviour moving forward, which isn't surprising given his position as a white man in law enforcement. Lee provides a much-needed refresh to the narrative, arriving at a point where the three other characters have fluctuated between the highest of highs and lowest of lows for over an hour, to represent the point of view of an older generation.
AMERICAN SON is an original story rooted in timely issues of racism, police brutality, and personal ideology. Its stellar cast brings four unique characters, all with their own thoughts and opinions, to light in a way that makes all of them - and none of them - simultaneously right. The choice to never show Jamal is a fantastic way of allowing audiences to project onto and care about him, especially when his whereabouts are explained and revealed. It's by no means a perfect film as its lengthy monologues seem better suited to a staged setting than behind a camera, but seeing the original cast bring these characters to life with such care - and in such an accessible manner - is the main draw.
AMERICAN SON premieres on Netflix November 2.
Photo credit: David Lee/Netflix