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‘American Son’ review: no-frills Broadway adaptation that should have stayed on stage

Kerry Washington stars in a missing-person drama that fails to stoke any curiosity whatsoever

Netflix is releasing 10 original films in cinemas this autumn, including Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, in a bid to maximise its chances of cleaning up during awards season. Sadly, it’s all too easy to see why American Son isn’t one of them. This adaptation of Christopher Demos-Brown’s Broadway play of the same name never comes close to feeling cinematic – and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that its heavy-handed exploration of racial prejudice would work better on stage than on a screen of any size.

Directed by Kenny Leon, who also directed the stage play, American Son takes place almost exclusively in a drab waiting room at a Miami police station. It’s a perfectly serviceable location for a play, but a pretty inert one for a film. Kerry Washington (Scandal) reprises her Broadway role alongside all three of her stage co-stars. She plays an emotionally articulate psychologist who becomes increasingly distressed as a low-ranking duty officer (Supergirl’s Jeremy Jordan) refuses to divulge the whereabouts of her 18-year-old son, Jamal. Washington’s Kendra knows Jamal’s car has been involved in an incident, but has no clue whether he’s safe or considered at fault in any way. 

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It quickly becomes clear that the duty officer is a low-key but not especially clever racist. He can’t help asking Kendra loaded questions about her son’s appearance – does he have tattoos, gold teeth or a “street name”? American Son is most compelling during early scenes when Kendra desperately tries to keep her cool without letting the duty officer get away with his micro-aggressions. However, Demos-Brown’s screenplay becomes increasingly difficult to invest in when Kendra’s estranged husband, Scott (The Good Wife’s Steven Pasquale), who is white, arrives. Squabbling with Kendra, Scott can’t seem to understand why their highly intelligent, expensively-educated biracial son has been trying to connect with his black heritage. Scott may not have a PhD in psychology like his wife, but it seems unlikely that he’d be quite so clueless about his son’s identity issues.

At this point, American Son slumps into a succession of stilted conversations about race in America that probably played better on stage, where dialogue doesn’t need to sound as natural to convince. Washington’s passionate performance is consistently watchable, but she can’t breathe much life into monologues this leaden and lacking in insight. The ending definitely packs an emotional punch, but Netflix might have been better served shooting the original stage play during its theatre run. By adapting American Son into a film that feels flat and has next to no frills, it’s sucked any energy from the story.

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Details

  • Director: Kenny Leon
  • Starring: Kerry Washington, Jeremy Jordan, Steven Pasquale
  • Release date: 1 November 2019

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