Based on the novel from Richard Wright, Native Son centers on Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders), “My friends call me Big,” who lives in Chicago as a young black man trying to be true to himself. He has his friends who fill in many of the tropes of an “urban crew,” pulling him in different directions. There’s the drug dealer, the buddy who keeps talking about attempting armed robbery, and another pal who tries to provide for his young family working at a movie theater.

There’s also a girlfriend who Big seems halfheartedly committed to. Meanwhile, Big, stands out from the group in his full punk lifestyle, always wearing some outrageous jacket, topped by his green hair. It all paints the picture of an aimless kid trying to do his own thing but unable to break away from all the comfortable relationships.

In the background is a subtle but omnipresent race and class struggle. Big isn’t just a young man trying to find his way in the world, he’s a young poor black man living in modern America. Don’t expect any breaks, don’t expect any benefit of the doubt. So when Big lucks into a legit job opportunity with a wealthy white suburban family, he doesn’t take it for granted. But the die is being cast against him. The privileged daughter in the family is entrapping Big in a plot he can’t unravel. I don’t want to spoil the plot turn in the second act, but it leaves the world closing in against him. He has no good options, leaving Big spiraling towards an inevitable ending.

The actors carry this film. Ashton Sanders immerses himself in the role, and the character of Big that emerges is a complex realistic lost young man who’s just trying the best he knows. The girlfriend, Bessie played by KiKi Layne, steals her scenes. She isn’t in enough of the film, but she carries her scenes and her character provides a moral grounding.

Aside from the acting, though, the adapted screenplay falls short of expectations. Some plot turns seem arbitrary, some writing misses. We are supposed to care for our protagonist, but what happens when our main character is unsympathetic? I haven’t read the book this is based on, but the source material surely provides a depth that this film misses.