A Dangerous Son

Movie review by
Mark Dolan, Common Sense Media
A Dangerous Son Movie Poster Image
Challenging doc puts human face on juvenile mental illness.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 86 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Stands out for positive role models.

Positive Messages

Brings attention to the number of people suffering from mental disorders and to the failings of the mental healthcare system in the U.S. 

Positive Role Models

The parents exhibit perseverance and patience in the face of intense personal hardship. Social service workers display compassion, understanding and a commitment to service.


A boy violently hits his sister and pulls his mother’s hair; the spate of recent school shootings is discussed and used as a point of reference; the boys threaten to kill themselves and others.



"f--k;" "g--damn;" "son of a bitch."


Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A mother is shown smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know A Dangerous Son is an intense documentary about three families with sons who have severe psychiatric disorders. These conditions often cause them to exhibit very aggressive behaviors, and it's clear that the mental healthcare system isn't equipped to treat them successfully. This brutally honest doc is sometimes hard to watch; there are some disturbing sequences showing one of the boys hitting his mother and younger sister and some rough language as his anger manifests in verbal outbursts. 

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What's the story?

A DANGEROUS SON introduces three diverse boys and their families. Ethan is ten and is first seen unrelentingly hitting his sister in the back seat of the minivan as his mom tries to calm him down. We can just make out what he’s saying over his sister’s sobs. He violently declares, “I’m upset!” Then we meet Vontae, a lanky 12-year old in South Central LA whose mother admits he’s not good at expressing himself with spoken words, and then says she finds violent letters he’s written about killing himself or someone else. And finally we meet William, an teen with autism who’s about to find out that his parents have decided to put him in a residential treatment facility. As we follow each boy's family as they take the different steps available to each of them depending on the resources of the state they happen to live in, the filmmakers highlight the failings of the current mental healthcare system. The film works to raise awareness of how the system isn’t set up to respond to the needs of these boys, all of whom need dedicated, long-term treatment. 

Is it any good?

This documentary is an emotional, eye-opening documentary that will make viewers feel sad, disturbed, and frustrated. Through the personal experiences of the three families who are the subject of this documentary, the filmmakers seek the bring attention to the inadequacies of the mental health system in this country, particularly when it comes to minors who display aggressive behavior. It also wants to disabuse viewers of the idea that parents are responsible for the psychological disorders of their children. We certainly sympathize with the mothers of these boys as they reach out for professional assistance and struggle to provide some sense of normalcy and safety to the lives of their other children. Yet, it’s hard to not question some of their parenting choices as we see them allow their aggressive and violent sons to play first person shooter video games or run around with realistic toy pistols. A Dangerous Son may challenge your current perceptions of the victims of mental illness and the medical establishment. It's not a comfortable viewing experience, but one that’s ultimately worthwhile because of its ability to shake you up and admittedly, wake you up.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about mental health. Why is it as important as physical health? How do you know when someone is dealing with a mental health issue? 

  • A Dangerous Son wants to raise awareness about the issue of mental illness and the lack of services available to regular families. How does this documentary make you feel? What emotion do you think the filmmakers want you to experience? Why?

Movie details

  • In theaters: May 7, 2018
  • On DVD or streaming: November 13, 2018
  • Director: Liz Garbus
  • Studio: HBO
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Run time: 86 minutes
  • MPAA rating: NR
  • Last updated: September 29, 2020

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