'Native Son' Review: 'Moonlight' Star Ashton Sanders Captivates In This Stunning Adaptation [Sundance]

Native Son is an adaptation of Richard Wright's 1940 novel, and while I haven't read that book, first-time director Rashid Johnson arrives on the scene with a smart, impressive debut full of strong work from a young cast.

Ashton Sanders, who played the teenaged version of Chiron in the Oscar-winning Moonlight, transforms into Bigger "Big" Thomas, a young man from Chicago with a love of punk music and a look to match, wearing a shock of green hair and a long black leather jacket with writing scribbled all over it. Big is a rarity for movie characters: someone who completely defies conventional stereotypes (and acknowledges that fact several times in the film) while also feeling like a well-rounded, genuine human with a life that continues when he's off-camera.

Sanders imbues Big with a sense of quiet curiosity. We discover he's well-read, loves Beethoven, dislikes politics, and refuses to participate in his friend's planned robbery because he doesn't want to become another statistic. The plot gets underway when he scores a job as the driver for Henry Dalton (Bill Camp), a super rich Chicago developer, and is tasked with driving Dalton's daughter Mary (The Leftovers' Margaret Qualley) around town, ostensibly to college classes but actually to parties where she hangs out with her activist boyfriend Jan (Jurassic World's Nick Robinson). Mary and Jan consider themselves socially progressive but are largely clueless, making assumptions about Big based on his skin color – one night, in a conspiratorial tone, they suggest going to a soul food joint to get some "real food." "I have no idea what black people think about what's going on in the world," Mary laments to Big. "I'll be sure to bring that up at our next meeting," he responds. The film is interested in the dynamics between race and class, and while its heart is in the right place, that exploration takes a backseat to the plot, which takes a hard turn in its second hour and ends up veering off in a surprising and harrowing direction.

Johnson, a rookie director but an established visual artist, tinges the movie with an ominous vibe as soon as Big takes the job, depicting the white family's mansion almost like a haunted house (one of the doorways looks exactly like a coffin). He eventually teeters the film into horror territory in the aftermath of one unexpected event, and that's when the societal commentary creeps back into the story. Audiences may feel disjointed by the tonal shift, but the filmmaking is so solid (with cinematography by frequent Darren Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique) that I remained on board the whole way.

Sanders owns the movie as Big, and his face is an open book that lets us into the character's head when he's thinking through a decision. Kiki Layne, who just starred in If Beale Street Could Talk, is excellent as Big's girlfriend Bessie, a stylish, confident woman who sees potential in him. It's a loose, lived-in performance, totally different from her buttoned-up Tish in Beale Street, and should signal a long career ahead for her. Camp's Henry Dalton feels like he'd be right at home in Get Out, explaining to Big how he's a supporter of the NAACP, and Elizabeth Marvel (Homeland, House of Cards) adds to the eeriness as Dalton's wife, wandering the halls of the mansion as if she were a ghost.

A24 had previously planned to distribute Native Son theatrically, but HBO picked up distribution rights the day of its premiere, so it will be available on the premium channel sometime in 2019.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10