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Sundance 2019 Film Review: “Native Son” (2019) ★★★★★



© Courtesy of Sundance Institute

What does fate stand for? How about fear? When there’s a big temptation to do something, one way or another, it will happen. Is it because of the stars that wanted it that way, fate, or just unfortunate circumstances? Rashid Johnson’s “Native Son” is an updated adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel, its central character Big or Bigger will attempt to paint his future. But what he does not know is that the same future has turned its back away from him.

Big dresses-up like a gangster. He is in his early 20s. His parents are putting way too much hope on him, while the young man imagines his life in a different way. His friend Jack has a big plan in one week that promises to build up a new future for them in which they can find their way out of poverty. In other words, to become more important than they are. However, that plan is being shattered by the job offer Big gets with the help of his father, to work as a driver for a wealthy family.

“Native Son” is a moody and exceptionally beautiful film, thanks to the cinematographer, Matthew Libatique. It neither had to tell how to accept the film nor how to watch it. Right from the start, when we meet Big, we know that he is about to get into trouble. But this man has potential to become the man his parents want him to become. Hanging out with troubled people does not help Big to work on himself. But when he starts working as a driver, his relationship with girlfriend Bessie (KiKi Layne) improves. You can notice that they are way different from the moment you meet them and when they reach towards the middle of the film.

Landing the job of a driver with a pay of $1000 per week for Henry (Bill Camp) surely plants the seeds of confidence into Big’s head. But when Henry’s daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), who adores her privileged life, appears in Big’s life, things take a whole different turn when the fear of losing what he has, his life itself, and the opportunity to fullfil his father’s wish can simply disappear. But it will all be about one right moment the young man is expected to make one decision that will either give him what he wants or take it away from him. But will he? Trust me on that, you will be eager to find out without my help.

Ashton Sanders as Bill delivers the most moving performance. He is like a poet who creates one poem after another through his flawless performance. He is tall, so Big as well. And through that, he creates such a dynamic between himself and the character you will never stop admiring. Margaret Qualley’s Mary is a narcissistic young woman with double standards. She thinks that the money her family has given her gives her the right to decide people’s fate. And in one way or another, she does that and the scenes nobody would ever want to miss. Kiki Layne as Bessie is so charming; she does not want Big to fail. She puts all her trust on him. She never hesitates when it comes to spending time with him but even she knows there is just one step required to fail. It’s just a matter of whether she will be willing to do it is something very interesting to watch throughout.

In the end, “Native Son” is a film that right from the beginning prepares you for a tense journey. It slowly changes its narrative, building up around its central character. As he grows, we grow with him. When he falls in love, we fall with him as well. When Big is getting confused, we do get the same reaction. The entire film is played by a great playbook that gets that important click to connect with the audience. It grabs your attention, leaves the world you live outside of the theater, and lets you enjoy what you see on the silver screen. And by the time when it’s over, you will have to take a minute to grasp everything you just saw – because it was powerful, moving but extremely sad at the same time.

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