Over-Dramatized and Under-cooked
12 Angry Men is one of my favourite films of all time. It’s incredibly simple, it’s topical, thought provoking and manages to balance a group of volatile personalities with a single scene to perfection. American Son feels like an attempt to tap into that same winning formula and the ingredients are certainly there to mix together to achieve this. The racial tension, juxtaposing characters and simple set-up all set the scene for fireworks to follow. Unfortunately, the indulgent over-acting, a questionable script and plenty of overlapping shouting hold this back from being a more delicate picture.
The film itself revolves around the anguish of Kenda, a worried Mother who reports her son Jamal missing and then finds herself caught in a racially-fueled fight with the police as she struggles to find out what happened to him. As the film progresses, the drama peaks and dips as an unprofessional police officer finds himself at the forefront of this early on, before being replaced with John Stokes, a lieutenant that injects the film with a perfect dose of drama during the third act.
All of this sets the scene nicely but the film itself falls flat within the first 10 minutes and never fully recovers, wasting little time in seeing Kendra blow up and scream at the various different people in the room. From here, overlapping shouting sees a strange blend of over-acting and unbelievable dialogue blend together to form a thick, sickly cocktail that’s hard to digest. To be fair, some of the exposition is quite good and the camera work is decent, especially late on during the surprisingly robust third act of the film, but the under-cooked final few scenes feel a little anticlimactic.
American Son has two pretty big problems holding it back from being a better film. The first, sees the characters bickering and throwing race issues into every conversation which does become really distracting. I understand racial tensions are high here but unlike a show like When They See Us, American Son is quick to remind us about the race problem in America every chance it gets. The other issue the film faces is a lack of empathy for its various characters and without that, the theatrical, one-scene approach really does fall apart.
Thematically at least, American Son does well to keep things topical and there’s actually a really solid speech late on, as the Lieutenant delivers a thought provoking viewpoint from the other side of the fence. It’s a welcome inclusion and for me, the highlight of the film as it perfectly subverts expectations.
Overall then, American Son is a film with a nice idea but poor execution. With better acting and more believable dialogue, this Netflix Original could be a topical, thought provoking picture but the overacting and ham-fisted dialogue really holds this back from being a more memorable film. A shame for sure, but American Son fails to offer the right dramatic outlet for this very important and ever-topical issue.