From the French-born writer/director who brought us The Father a couple years back, Florian Zeller unveils The Son, based on his play of the same name (as was The Father and get ready, because he has another play called The Mother). If there’s an obvious connective tissue between the two stories, it’s that both seem to examine how we treat someone in our family who is in severe mental distress of some kind. The Father was about dementia, while The Son concerns depression. Specifically, this latest work is about how parents are blinded by their desire to fix their children themselves (as opposed to turning them over to professionals) to the point where they may be doing more harm than good.
Peter Miller (Hugh Jackman) is driven by two things: his desire to succeed in his work and his motivation to be a different kind of parent than his own father (Anthony Hopkins, whom we see in one powerful scene). Peter is divorced from Kate (Laura Dern) and newly married to Beth (Vanessa Kirby), with the two having a new baby, which they are still getting used to. One day, Kate contacts him to reveal that their teen son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) has missed school for an entire month, leaving the house every morning, coming back at night, and just wandering the streets during the day.
When confronted with this, Nicholas is vague about his reasons for doing this, but it’s clear that he’s unhappy with his school and perhaps with his life. It’s probably not a coincidence that this behavior started around the time his father’s new baby arrived; even still, Nicholas asks to move in with his father for a while because he and Kate can’t stop fighting. And although Beth is hesitant to bring a troubled teen into their currently chaotic lives, she wants to be supportive if everyone agrees that having his father nearby will help Nicholas.
They get him enrolled in a new school, and things seem to be improving, until they aren’t and signs of Nicholas’ barely-under-the-surface depression begin to creep out in explosive moments. He’s begun cutting himself again (he had been previously but seemed to have stopped for a time), and it turns out that after going to the new school for one day, he started skipping once again.
With a screenplay by Zeller and Christopher Hampton, The Son is a tremendous showcase for Jackman, Dern, and Kirby, with each parental unit doing their best trying to uncover the roots of Nicholas’ condition and figure out what to do about it. At one point, they even have him admitted to a psychiatric hospital under the care of a doctor (Hugh Quarshie), who isn’t clouded by any connection to Nicholas and wants to have him fully committed for a period to monitor his condition. But in a disastrous meeting between Nicholas and his parents with the doctor, the son is despondent, begging his parents not to leave him there, swearing he’ll get better and go back to school. And while they initially listen to the doctor’s wishes, they ultimately cave and bring Nicholas back to Peter’s house. We don’t need to be told that hopes of a peaceful solution to the boy’s problems are slim.
Without giving away what or when it is in the film, there’s a sequence in The Son that is built on a father’s pure fantasy—wishful thinking come to life—and it’s beautiful even if it isn’t real. And I’m guessing for many, that scene is going to be the make or break point for this story. Personally, it devastated me and made me appreciate all the more what The Son is trying to do, despite its many flawed attempts at illustrating the drama at the core of this family. My biggest issue with the film is that Nicholas is portrayed as a manipulative, conniving beast most of the time, mildly creepy (I was worried about the baby’s well-being for the entire movie, even though I’m fairly certain the filmmaker didn’t intend that). If you want me to care about a character’s well-being, you have to give me something about that person to actually appreciate, if not outright like.
I expect that the parents will make (and hopefully learn from) mistakes, but the fact that they care enough to try at least shows me they have functioning hearts. I especially liked Kirby’s portray of Beth, who is stuck in the middle of this family drama with no escape. She’s barely sleeping and doesn’t know Nicholas well enough to help him, so she just tries to support the situation, even though Nicholas is sometimes quite intrusive and rude while staying with them. The one scene with Hopkins is also quite good, and does the best it can to explain why Peter is so desperate not to simply turn over care of his son to someone else, the way his own father would have done without a second thought. The Son isn’t as complex and layered a story as The Father, but it’s still sometimes captivating and moving.
The film is now open theatrically in limited release.
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