Many movies have tried to offer commentary on the Iraq war and have failed tremendously at the box office. From Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah and the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Rendition, these movies have struggled to find an audience. It may be fatigue, not wanting to “escape” by watching such movies, or it may be simply a matter of not wanting to be lectured to. So hopes were not high for American Son.

Coming home to life in Bakersfield after coming back from Camp Pendleton and Marine boot camp, 19 year old Mike Holland (Nick Cannon) re-examines his life and relationships. To be honest, the idea of Nick Cannon in a serious role might be cause for skepticism (although he has really grown on me since becoming the host of America’s Got Talent. Yeah, I said it.). Armed with a powerful, honest screenplay by first-timer Eric Schmid, he exudes a confident charm and a sly humor.

“Live it up, my man. It’s all gone so fast.” –Dad (Chi McBride)

American Son explores the familiar territory of how we can’t go home again (even apparently after a few months … if nothing has changed but you have), dealing with family and the possibility of a new relationship, on the eve of being shipped off to war. The reality of his mortality driven home by this fact, Mike looks at his life in a new way. Grasping on to what is important while clinging to his responsibilities and duties.

“Tell you the truth, I’d much rather be over there facing that shit than wasting away life everybody else.” –Mike

With 96 hours until he ships out, regular inter-titles count down the hours until his departure, he has to come to terms with his life. He wanted to test himself and seek out new opportunities, but he still has to deal with the realities of his life: his younger sister (Erica Gluck) who idolizes him, his religious mother (April Grace), his drug addict brother, his stoic-to-the-point-of-stone stepdad (Tom Sizemore), and his brief reunion with his estranged father (a steller, yet understated, performance by Chi McBride).

Subtle commentary on race … by not commenting on race. Our lead hero is black, his best friend Jake (Matt O’Leary) is white, and his girlfriend Cristina (Melonie Diaz) is Hispanic. The movie proceeds as if that’s the norm/not unusual and respects its audience enough to not feel the need to point it out. It gets its point across through performances, like the polite distrust of Cristina’s family when they first meet Mike.

“Why does it have to be you?” –Mom

No one wants him to go off to war. They want him to stay safe, with them. Mike’s mother knows all she can do is pray for her son. We have a natural sense of God as our protector and desire to seek His protection. We want His protection, especially in light of the fact that we can’t protect one another. When bad things happen, it’s like we long for God to step in, in a more direct way, and control things. We don’t ask such things when things are going “okay” (or as we’re making our own bad decisions). It’s like we want a “sovereign” God when it’s convenient.

We can live in a state of freedom in life, having a state of peace, faith, and confidence stemming from the assurance that we have in Christ Jesus. OR, we can continue on our own way, left to our own devices, with fear, doubt, and insecurity, trapped in a cycle of spiritual death. This assurance springs from faith in God as the ultimate protector, that sense that He is the ultimate, faithful judge.

“Whatever you’re doing, where do you think it’s going to take you?” –Mike

American Son makes for a mildly compelling, though wholly melodramatic, movie. While a personal movie looking at the life of a soldier about to be shipped off to Iraq, it has its share of dropped and unresolved storylines which didn’t make for the most satisfying of endings. Well-acted and without a political dimension, this movie is just a portrait of a man off to war: somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s friend, somebody’s boyfriend. So maybe it can find its audience on DVD.