The Son (LFF Review) – It Cannot Keep Up With The Father

DIRECTOR: Florian Zeller

CAST: Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, George Cobell, Hugh Quarshie, Anthony Hopkins

RUNNING TIME: 123 mins

CERTIFICATE: TBC

BASICALLY…: A father’s (Jackman) busy life is upended when his teenage son (McGrath) comes to stay…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

This review of The Son was conducted as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

French playwright Florian Zeller crashed the pandemic-struck awards season of 2020/21 with his captivating and intelligent debut film The Father, which dived deep into the psychologically warped mindset of someone with dementia, and produced some genuinely heart-breaking results that not only earned Zeller and co-writer Christopher Hampton a shared Oscar for Adapted Screenplay, but gave its lead Anthony Hopkins the edge over presumed posthumous winner Chadwick Boseman for the Best Actor trophy. All three now attempt to ignite the same spark (albeit with Hopkins taking a much smaller role this time round) with Zeller’s follow-up feature The Son, which like The Father before it is based on one of his plays, and deals with severe psychological issues throughout.

Unfortunately, in this instance, The Son cannot keep up with The Father.

An oddly streamlined, base-level study of mental illness in today’s youth, Zeller’s follow-up feature is a frustrating viewing experience, because you know exactly what it is trying to say, but it isn’t smart or sophisticated enough to say that very thing in the ways that it clearly wants to.

Set in New York, we follow Peter (Hugh Jackman), a well-off attorney who had previously left his now former wife Kate (Laura Dern) and their teenage son Nicholas (Zen McGrath), and begun a new family with his younger squeeze Beth (Vanessa Kirby). One day, Kate informs him that Nicholas no longer wishes to live with his mother, and is now keen to move in with his father; Peter, eager to reconnect with his son after the bitter divorce, allows Nicholas to stay with him, Beth and their infant son, as he gets accustomed to his new school (he has just been kicked out of his current one for constantly skipping classes). However, it’s painfully obvious that something is not quite right with Nicholas; he has erratic mood swings, is in a constant state of misery and despair, and despite his parents’ best efforts he simply cannot bring himself to be happy. What on Earth, Peter and his fellow adults ponder, could ever be the matter with this boy?

Anyone who’s ever experienced any level of depression in their lives will already know the answer, and will be endlessly frustrated that the supposedly smart and intellectual adults cannot seem to come to the most obvious conclusion. This kid displays all the warning signs imaginable that he needs serious psychiatric help, from constantly breaking down in tears to acts of self-harm, and yet his parents always fail to recognise that it’s something that can’t be solved by simple conversation. Half the time, you’re screaming at both Jackman and Dern as their characters are constantly baffled by their son’s misery, as though this is a universe where depression is practically unheard of in young adults. Then again, this is also a universe where anti-depressants do not seem to exist, because the movie completely side-steps that conversation and just focuses on “curing” the boy there and then; these characters, particularly Jackman’s successful character, seem like they could easily get health insurance, so there’s really no excuse. Again, you’re sitting there being irritated by the fact that nobody is even suggesting a prescription of anti-depressants for this kid, because while they won’t completely solve the problem they would at least help him in the short term (and yes, there are anti-depressants that do not work as well on some people as they do on others, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least consider it as a viable option for the time being, something that this movie really doesn’t acknowledge). The lack of logic behind this depiction of mental health is blind-siding, because you just can’t believe that these adult characters could miss all these flashing neon warning signs right in front of them, and they just keep making worse and worse decisions to a point where you no longer harbour any sympathy for these people, with nearly everything transpiring after one particularly misguided decision being all on them.

To say that it makes a mess of its themes is an understatement, for it shatters its good intentions with one ill-advised direction after another, enough to make you feel more sorry for the actors than the characters they’re playing. There are some genuinely good performances here – Hugh Jackman is solid throughout, Laura Dern has a few monologues where she gets to shed some tears, and Anthony Hopkins makes the most of his five-to-ten minute screentime as Jackman’s own cruel father – but you feel like they’re being wasted on material that is, in many respects, beneath them, and that’s very disappointing to admit given that this is from the same creative team behind a legitimately great drama and psychological study like The Father. Zeller and Hampton’s script fails to make as many dives into the mindset of this troubled young boy as it did for Hopkins’ dementia-riddled old man, which I understand them not doing for it really would have been a retread of their much better film, but at the same time you know next to nothing about this kid other than what he’s feeling, so it perhaps could have used some of that magic to really make this work, because otherwise the least developed element of The Son remains, ironically enough, the son himself.

Had this been a much smarter, more thoughtful movie about the very real circumstances surrounding depression in young adults, then perhaps The Son would have been a worthy successor to The Father, but instead it plays like a manipulative afterschool special that has some good performances which feel wasted on material that mines the topic for all the emotional impact that it can make. There is, apparently, a third play in Zoller’s trilogy entitled The Mother, which will probably be adapted by Zeller at some point given the success of The Father and the partial buzz surrounding this one too, but let’s hope that this potential trilogy capper will treat its own themes and characters with more respect – and maybe put Anthony Hopkins in there too, because he might as well be Zeller’s John Ratzenberger at this point too.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Son is a frustratingly inferior follow-up to director and co-writer Florian Zelller’s The Father, which seriously fumbles its themes on mental illness with a lack of logic and sympathy for characters who continuously make bad decisions throughout, which not even solid turns by Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern can save.

The Son does not yet have a UK release date, as of publication.

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