The makers of the painfully earnest Iraq drama American Son probably began packing for Sundance before shooting even began. The film has all the hallmarks of typical film-festival fodder: a popular lightweight (Nick Cannon of Wild ’N Out, Drumline, and being-married-to-Mariah Carey fame) out to prove his chops as a dramatic actor, big-name character actors in supporting roles (Chi McBride, Tom Sizemore, Jay Hernandez), a Serious, Timely Issue (the Iraq war), and a tremblingly sincere tone. Sure enough, American Son played Sundance in 2008 en route to a discreet direct-to-DVD burial.
In a passable lead performance, Cannon plays a proud Marine scheduled to ship out to Iraq in four days. While biding his time, Cannon hangs around with drug-dealer buddy Matt O’Leary and their party-hearty circle of pals; strikes up a tentative romance with a cute, sensitive college student (Melonie Diaz); and strategically refrains from telling his loved ones about his deployment until it becomes narratively convenient. Cannon plays his baby-faced warrior as a true believer who happily chugged the military-issued Kool-Aid and politely asked for seconds. There’s no question that Cannon is headed to Iraq; the drama instead comes from the way his military career underlines the growing emotional gulf between himself and his friends and family.
American Son begins as a relatively low-key slice of life, content to follow Cannon as he tries to enjoy his final few days of freedom before heading back into the regimented world of the Marines. But screenwriter Eric Schmid and director Neil Abramson (a documentary vet best known for helming the little-loved 1998 Jerry Springer vehicle Ringmaster) can’t resist the hoary melodrama that is every war drama’s inalienable birthright. So before long, Hernandez is overacting up a storm as the stock crazy veteran, and Leary is freaking out like a road-show version of Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad. Son ticks off the hours until Cannon’s departure abroad; the looming specter of death gives the film an air of portentousness it doesn’t particularly earn. Well-intentioned, noble, but forgettable, American Son illustrates why the Sundance logo on a DVD cover is a warning as often as it is an inducement.
Key features: Dull deleted scenes, a tedious making-of documentary, and a less-than-scintillating audio commentary from the filmmakers.