Politics turn very personal in “American Son,” director Neil Abramson‘s standout drama about a young Marine (Nick Cannon) on leave before shipping off to Iraq. It’s the Iraq War movie audiences have been waiting to see, one that reduces the Iraq debate to the conflicts of one man facing his decision to enlist and coming to terms with all that he may lose back home as a result. Abramson and screenwriter Eric Schmid wisely brush aside political debate and battle scenes for an emotional, intimate tale set in new recruit Mike Holland’s (Cannon) hometown of Bakersfield, CA. Holland joined the Marines as a means to get away from his dead end life and his broken family. On a bus ride home for a brief Thanksgiving leave before deployment, Mike meets Cristina (Melonie Diaz), a pretty Latina and their fast-moving romance becomes the heart of the most beautiful war story imaginable.
Abramson has made quality films before, dramas “Without Air” and “Defining Maggie,” documentaries “Bob Smith U.S.A.” and “Soldier Child” but “American Son,” making its debut in dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival, looks to bring him the attention he deserves. Abramson does everything right with “American Son.” Working with editor Karen Schmeer, he balances scenes of youthful energy and drunken revelry with moments of still heartache and romantic longing. With the help of cameraman Kristian Kachikis, Abramson captures the blue-collar bleakness of Bakersfield with painterly beauty. Of course, when it comes to human dramas, storytelling is everything and Abramson takes advantage of the fully drawn characters, riveting family subplots and beautiful romance crafted by Schmid. There’s not a false note in the entire film.
Abramson’s directing triumph owes much to its lead, Nick Cannon. A familiar face thanks to two popular TV series and the films “Bobby” and “Drumline,” Cannon has already shown himself to be handsome and overflowing with charisma. What Cannon brings to “American Son,” what he’s revealing for the first time as an actor, is heartfelt emotion and believable torment as a young man afraid about his future in Iraq. It helps that Cannon is surrounded by great support: Chi McBride as Mike’s estranged father, Matt O’Leary as Mike’s friend Jake and Diaz and the young woman who brings love to Mike’s unhappy life. Still, “American Son” is Mike’s story and as Mike, Cannon becomes the face of all the men and women, poor or otherwise, who enlist for duty in Iraq as a means to get out of poverty and then end up battling with the decision. Cannon does justice to these soldiers and by reaching for something new and challenging he enhances his own reputation as an actor. With “American Son,” Cannon’s acting journey is part of Abramson’s journey as a filmmaker, which speaks to America’s troubled journey in Iraq. When it comes to politics, it’s the small human stories that matter most and “American Son” is powerful proof.
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.