The Son, 2022.
Directed by Florian Zeller.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Zen McGrath, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Anthony Hopkins, William Hope, George Cobell, Isaura Barbé-Brown, Mercedes Bahleda, Akie Kotabe, Erick Hayden, Danielle Lewis, Van Pierre, and Jesse Cilio.
Peter has his busy life with new partner Beth and their baby thrown into disarray when his ex-wife Kate turns up with their teenage son, Nicholas.
There’s a shoulder-shrugging indifference for most of The Son‘s running time (playwright Florian Zeller adapting his work alongside screenwriter Christopher Hampton). It’s a film about mental health, generational trauma, and fighting against repeating the father’s sins, anchored by a committed Hugh Jackman who wants an Oscar.
Then the last 20 minutes happened, which is expected since the clunky acknowledgment of a specific object meant it would come back into play for an attempt at emotional devastation. But there’s no preparation for how grossly cheap and shamefully manipulative Florian Zeller executes this. It’s so poorly done that it made me wonder if he even understood why his own breakthrough Oscar-winning hit, The Father (also a stageplay and a loose sequel to this story), wrecked people on the inside.
Being intentionally vague, Florian Zeller tries to utilize some storytelling trickery during the ending, somewhat similar to his playful but heartbreaking study of dementia in The Father, which here reeks of another tasteless plea for audience tears. It’s stunning that Florian Zeller actually goes through with the ending, yet it keeps getting worse and more offensive, to the point where the sheer notion of giving Hugh Jackman praise for this is nauseating. It raises the age-old question of whether or not a good performance is worthy of industry recognition, even if it comes from a terribly misguided film.
With that rambling disclaimer out of the way, The Son admittedly is trying to tell an important story about acute depression that deserves to be told. It is another question entirely whether it should be told in the same universe as The Father. However, it does allow Anthony Hopkins to steal the movie with five minutes of screen time, laying out why Hugh Jackman’s titular son Peter is the way he is and how his actions toward his troubled son are a reflection of that bumpy upbringing.
As The Son begins, Peter’s ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) knocks on his apartment door. She mentions that their 17-year-old son Nicholas (an unfortunately miscast rough performance from Zen McGrath) has scars on his arm, is having dark thoughts, and hasn’t gone to school in a month (there’s a random subplot that he is also a skilled hacker, which explains how schools never quite catch on to his absence). The boy thinks that living with Peter and his baby brother from the new girlfriend he cheated on Kate with, Beth (Vanessa Kirby, who might give the only honest performance in this overwrought exercise), will benefit his mental health.
From the moment Peter confronts Nicholas about self-harm, there is unmistakable dishonesty in the performance from Zen McGrath, although, to be fair, he is let down by a stagey script more concerned with bombastic dialogue than cutting to the core of these severe issues. The entirety of The Son feels made by a team of filmmakers that don’t understand depression or how to convey it authentically on screen.
That’s also a shame considering the inner dilemma within Peter is convincing enough, even when he frustratingly makes the wrong choices. There is a genuine struggle in trying to support his son even if he fails at the right way to approach the situation, which manifests in ways that disgust him as if looking into a mirror and seeing his father. His dedicated work assisting political campaigns also gets in the way of properly caring for his son and nurturing the relationship between him and Beth (the only dynamic that feels somewhat organic).
Still, it doesn’t amount to much because the entire time, it’s apparent that Florian Zeller doesn’t actually care about exploring depression and generational pain in The Son, but making his way to the insultingly cloying shock value ending. It’s enough to make one wonder if he actually gave a shit about honestly depicting dementia in The Father or if he fluked his way into an outstanding debut.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]