Film Review – The Son
Fresh off his award-winning work in The Father (2020), writer/director Florian Zeller has returned with yet another tale of familial strife in The Son (2022). However, the success of his previous outing does not translate this go around. In fact, it’s the opposite. This is a shockingly dreary story of broken homes and mental illness. Zeller molds his themes into a manipulative final product. Adapting his own play (with Christopher Hampton as the credited screenwriter), Zeller aims to make this viewing experience as miserable as possible. There is no levity here – just pain, anguish and hopelessness. Whatever insights there are get lost in a sea of agony.
The topic is an important one and should be discussed. Depression – especially among young adults and teens – is a serious issue that must be addressed. As a father myself, I remember what it was like to be young, lonely, and unsure of where life was heading. I worry about how my kids will grow up and adapt to a world that is always changing. In that regard, Zeller should be commended for tackling this kind of material. But he does so with a heavy hand. He attempts to pull at our heartstrings with cheap melodrama – ignoring logic and allowing his characters to make unwise decisions. It’s hard to be drawn into a film that forces a reaction out of you – it borders on exploitation.
Credit should go to actors Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, and Vanessa Kirby – all of whom try their damnedest to make something out of so little. Peter (Jackman) has a busy life juggling work, raising a newborn with wife Beth (Kirby) and being a co-parent to his son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) with ex-wife Kate (Dern). This balancing act gets tossed into disarray when Kate tells Peter that Nicholas has been showing signs of extreme depression. Nicholas has become closed off, hostile, and hasn’t been going to school. In an effort to break through the boy’s isolation, Peter takes Nicholas into his home, hoping that a change of scenery will lift his spirits.
What follows is a series of events where Nicholas shows hints of improvement only to fall back into his gloomy ways. It’s a one step forward, two steps back situation. This is not necessarily inaccurate – people suffering from mental illness can sway between high and low points at any given second. But the writing and direction executes this badly. Characters talk in half sentences, ask questions that are rarely answered, or explode in expositional monologues detailing their every thought and emotion. The repetitive nature of the writing becomes tiresome. The cast do all the heavy lifting, especially Jackman. He is one of the few saving graces – expressing the confusion and frustration of a parent sensing their child slipping away. The exchange between Peter and his own father (an underused Anthony Hopkins) proves to be one the best scenes. The back and forth between them shows the generational effects of neglect and mistreatment. But Jackman – along with Dern and Kirby – are tasked to swim upstream with their performances.
Stylistically, the cast is provided minimal support. Given that this is adapted from the stage, there is a stripped down, bare bones quality in how the plot unfolds. However, the camerawork and editing structure scenes as bland interactions. Characters are almost always captured in medium shots, with subjects placed on opposite ends of the screen as we cut back and forth between them. When the narrative breaks away from this formula and tries something different, it backfires. When Peter, Beth, and Nicholas share a carefree moment by dancing to music, the visuals switch to slow motion, accentuating the body movements and goofy smiles. What is supposed to be heartfelt plays like a parody. The same effect happens during flashback sequences. These chapters are meant to depict the family before darkness entered their lives, where joy and happiness was once present. But they feel false because of how ham-fisted they are managed.
I feel bad for Zen McGrath – he was not put in a position to succeed. Nicholas is the emotional center, the person whom everyone else revolves around. However, Nicholas is not a believable character. This is not McGrath’s fault – Zeller fails to pull a great performance out of him. Nicholas is filled with blank stares and strange ticks. Outbursts are strained and surface level, as though McGrath was struggling to find authenticity. When pitted against the likes of Jackman, Kirby, and Dern, McGrath is overmatched. I don’t normally put emphasis on poor acting, because actors can only do what is asked of them. But so much of the dramatic tension hinges on Nicholas’ journey. If we can’t buy into him as a real person, how are we supposed to believe anything else that happens?
Late into the runtime, a decision is made that is so outlandishly idiotic that I was left speechless. It’s one thing for characters to make bad choices, it’s a whole other thing when those choices ignore rationality. Even when characters are warned of the consequences, they tempt fate with stubborn foolishness. The saddest part is that we can see where things are going right away. We realize the production is not trying to resolve the conflict through empathy or grace, but by shocking our senses. The twist – if we can call it that – is a loathsome punctuation for The Son, making what was already a tough sit through damn near repellent.