Super-condensed, coming-of-age, military-threaded love story American Son is a sort of karmic prequel to something like Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss, which detailed the shattering effects of the Iraq War on modern American masculinity. American Son isn’t a Coming Home-type drama, though; it’s a shipping-out drama, detailing the stomach-churning angst leading up to a tour of duty.
After completing his basic training at Camp Pendleton, 19-year-old Marine and California native Mike Holland (Nick Cannon) spends a four-day Thanksgiving leave back home with his friends and family, unable to admit to them that he’s preparing to ship out for his first tour of Iraq. Mike tries to reconnect with his mother (April Grace), stepfather (Tom Sizemore), sister (Erica Gluck) and father (Chi McBride), but the more time he spends around troubled best pal Jake (Matt O’Leary, breathing some life into a tough role, The Friend Left Behind), the more Mike becomes aware of the precarious future he faces. The girl both pleasantly distracting him from his impending order to report and making it loom in even starker dramatic relief is Cristina (Melonie Diaz), an unassuming young woman set to head off to college in the fall.
Director Neil Abramson — whose most notable credit, strangely, is the 1998 Jerry Springer flick Ringmaster — isn’t totally able to wean Cannon from his tendency to embrace glowering emotion, which dings a couple scenes. But Cannon and Diaz have a sincere, easygoing rapport and chemistry, and the banter in Eric Schmid’s script — discussing their personal travel
histories and brushes with fame, Mike notes that he once saw Clint Eastwood purchasing cheese — feels just off-kilter and esoteric enough to be real, in the way that awkward teenage romantic connection so often is. If the herky-jerky nature of Mike’s run-ins with Jake — who’s turned to selling drugs, and has to go from back-slapping to accusatory and back again, several times over — doesn’t really play, and the requisite physical flip-out moment seems a bit forced, Schmid also locates some tender moments. And apart from a few thumping party sequences, meanwhile, Abramson thankfully doesn’t try to amp up the story’s settings and interactions. He lets the drama develop slowly, naturally.
Consequently, the most arguably affecting parts of American Son are actually some of the least essential to the main Mike-Cristina storyline — Mike’s sister begging him to read her a storybook she’s long since outgrown, just so she can listen to him do the different character voices, or Mike visiting a gravely wounded Marine (Jay Hernandez) whom he doesn’t know at the behest of Cristina’s family, just to offer some brothers-in-arms support. It’s tough to balance, these senses of tenderness, grace and respect of roots, but Abramson communicates them with clear-eyed, non-judgmental precision, and nicely interweaves them with scenes showcasing Mike’s increasingly nervous jitters. For soldiers, one sees, the effects of war begin before it even starts, and of course last long after. I only wish the movie’s ending had a bit more punch, in either one way or another. I typically don’t mind narrative open-endedness, but here it feels a bit too removed, and free-floating.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case with snap-shut hinges, American Son comes to DVD presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16×9 televisions, with an English language Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track, optional English and Spanish subtitles and a motion-animated main menu screen. A 12-minute making-of featurette delves into the movie’s 20-day location shoot in the California town of Bakersfield in April of 2007, though a good bit of this footage represents set-captured mayhem (weapons training, shot set-up, gun firing), complete with shoddy source sound. More interesting is a feature-length audio commentary track with director Abramson and producers Danielle Renfrew and Michael Roiff, in which the trio dissect the movie’s journey from script to screen, and ladle praise on cast and crew alike. There are also two excised scenes included, with optional commentary from the same group above: an extended beach chat between Mike and Cristina in which he more explicitly details his reasons for joining the military, and a one-minute goodbye sequence in which Mike drops Cristina off at her house. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B (Movie) B- (Disc)