American Son

It’s admirable that director Kenny Leon has brought the entire cast (of four) on board for the filmed version of the play American Son, now streaming on Netflix.

The problem is that he also brought along Christopher Demos-Brown’s script.

In American Son, Kerry Washington plays psychology professor Kendra Ellis-Connor, who arrives at a police station in search of information about her missing son. Officer Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) isn’t terribly helpful, instructing her to wait until a superior arrives. The wait, of course, is agonizingly frustrating, compounded when Officer Larkin proves a bit more accommodating when Kendra’s ex-husband, Scott (Steven Pasquale), arrives.

The discrepancy isn’t lost on Kendra — or Leon. Both conspire to make sure that every micro- and macro-aggression is underlined, italicized and bolded.

Information emerges, sometimes in trickles and sometimes in expositional floods. Scott and Kendra’s son, Jamal, is a good kid given a privileged education by his parents. But lately he’s been having doubts about his white dad’s insistence that he attend West Point. An anti-cop bumper sticker (on his Lexus) proves a particularly sore spot once Pop — who also happens to be an FBI agent — learns about it.

Position papers replace dialogue, with Demos-Brown particularly awkward when trying to add character details. A red flag should go off whenever a character in any fictional story quotes poetry, as happens early here with some awkward Emily Dickenson. There’s an excess of both-sides-ism. And a shakily motivated physical battle between Scott, Paul and the late-arriving superior officer (Eugene Lee) feels like someone told the author “You gotta get some action in here somewhere.”

And don’t get me started on the cheap final line.

Today’s theater world is filled with interesting, nuanced, original work, much of it dealing with race. Terrific plays of all stripes are out there, and I’m hoping they continue to be mined both for shot-from-the-stage programs and opened-up versions.

And the streaming services have stepped up, to a degree, in bringing such work to wider audiences. John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons, Spike Lee’s film version of Passing Strange and even the recent King Lear with Anthony Hopkins demonstrate ways in which work written for the theater can effectively crossover to streaming services in worthwhile endeavors.

And so I’ll refrain from generalization or making too big of a deal about this dud. American Son is just a well-meaning-but-disappointing play turned into a well-meaning-but-disappointing film.


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About

Lou Harry’s more than 40 books include Creative Block, The High-Impact Infidelity Diet: a novel, the recently released Little Book of Misquotations, and the novelization of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. His produced plays include Midwestern Hemisphere and Popular Monsters, and his podcast, Lou Harry Gets Real, can be heard via Apple podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify. A board member for the American Theatre Critics Association, he also serves as editor of Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @louharry and / or visit www.louharry.com


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