Review: Native Son (Sundance)

Native Son (Sundance)
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PLOT: Bigger Thomas (Ashton Saunders), a young African-American man living with his family in inner-city Chicago, gets a job as a chauffeur for a rich white family - an opportunity that at first seems heaven sent. Alas, fate has other things in store for the complicated young man.

REVIEW: NATIVE SON, in addition to being one of the opening night films at Sundance this year, also wound up being the first big sale of the festival, with HBO acquiring it hours before the first public showing. This is an odd twist given how the film was produced by A24, who seem to be relinquishing the theatrical rights to make this an HBO telefilm, made even stranger by the scale it’s been filmed on, with gorgeous 2:35:1 scope photography by Matthew Libatique (A STAR IS BORN).

Having seen the film, A24’s reasons for selling the film to HBO make more sense, as it’s a deeply polarizing work. An adaptation of the seminal 1940 novel by Richard Wright, first-time director Rashid Johnson, and writer Suzan-Lori Parks made a bold choice by updating the setting to contemporary Chicago, but many of the fans of the book I spoke to about this afterward (having not read it myself) feel the story just didn’t translate. The issue seems to be that by making it modern, the pivotal event that changes Bigger’s life fundamentally alters the character as initially conceived in the novel.

That aside, NATIVE SON has its good points and bad. Its key strength is the dynamic star turn by Ashton Saunders, who in the first half of the film, succeeds in presenting an iconoclastic character that’s unlike any I’ve seen depicted recently. I like the style director Johnson gives him, making him an American Hardcore fan of the classic band, The Bad Brains with punk rocker-style green hair, and the scenes depicting his life with his friends, family, and girlfriend (KiKi Layne of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK) are evocative and effective.

Once Bigger enters the Dalton household (with real-life husband and wife Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel as the heads) things get more complicated. Specifically, the Dalton daughter, played by Margaret Qualley, seems painfully naive. In a story set in 1940, yes, I’d get how this rich girl could be sheltered and perhaps act the way she does, but in a modern setting - it doesn’t work as much. The big moment between the two also seems hard to swallow, while in a 1940-set story, it would have been a desperate moment with a more believable outcome. It just doesn’t quite work and from there the movie unravels.

Nevertheless, NATIVE SON is stylish and very watchable, with the (mostly) excellent performances, and a notably good score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. Whether or not it would have ever connected with an audience theatrically is a question that’ll never be answered, but on pay cable, even if the film doesn’t always work there’s enough that’s good about it to make it worth a watch.

Source: JoBlo.com



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