Hugh Jackman struggles to help his mentally ill kid in Florian Zeller’s The Son
The Son is the second feature film from French playwright turned director Florian Zeller, who adapts it from his own play of the same name. Zeller’s masterful debut The Father propelled its star Anthony Hopkins to a second Best Actor Oscar two years ago and Zeller to a best adapted screenplay award, so anticipation has been extremely high for this release. Zeller tackles a subject matter of similar weight to his first film, though The Son plays as a more traditional narrative, with none of the twisting time jumps of his Alzheimer’s drama.
Peter (Hugh Jackman) is a successful lawyer and aspiring politician with a second wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and new baby at home. Relentlessly work focused, he does not spend much time with them. Peter’s ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) gets in touch with concerns about their seventeen-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath in his film debut) when she finds out he has been skipping school for months.
While the family all initially believe that Nicholas is just acting out due to being upset at the breakup of his parents’ marriage, it quickly becomes apparent that he is suffering quite severe mental health issues. Nicholas moves in with Peter and Beth claiming that a change of household will help him feel better, but the journey towards recovery is not that simple.
The Son is clearly made with the best of intentions, Zeller crafting a story about how fathers relate to their sons and the struggle of raising a child when life does not turn out the way you imagined. Jackman’s character desperately loves his son and wants to help but is just ill-equipped to do so. He appears completely lost throughout at the film, all the while keeping up appearances of the perfect family unit at work.
He is infuriating at times, seemingly having absolutely no concept of the very nature of mental illness; he keeps circling back to questions like ‘’why are you sad?’’ and ‘’did something happen at school?’’ like the notion that someone could struggle without provocation is impossible. You find yourself asking how this man could possibly be existing in the 21st century and be this clueless when there is so much mental health discourse these days.
An excellent cameo from Anthony Hopkins as Peter’s father pretty much lays those questions to rest as we get the briefest insight into what sort of upbringing and relationship Peter had with his own father. Zeller’s screenplay suggests the notion of generational trauma, of fathers being unable to avoid damaging their children much as they might think they are doing things differently. (Just to clear up any confusion, Hopkins is not playing the same character as he did in The Father, the two stories are not linked.)
The problem with The Son is that somehow, it just doesn’t make you feel anything. Or rather, the only thing I felt was frustration rather and sadness or empathy. The story feels like it has a certain inevitability to it as you watch the characters make one poor choice after another and we find ourselves annoyed rather than invested in their story. Far too much is said rather than shown, spelled out specifically in awkward dialogue like the audience needs to be spoon fed and can’t join the dots themselves.
The Son’s approach to mental health issues doesn’t really add anything new to the discussion. This story has been done before in film – I’ve watched two other films about a family dealing with someone with depression this week alone – but they have been done better either via smarter writing or more imaginative direction. The final scene of the film is the sole highlight. The only imaginative filmmaking in the whole two hours, it stands out as a testament to what could have been.
There are mostly good performances all round, Jackman and Dern excelling in their quiet moments when allowed to play with the simple emotion of scenes. Jackman’s Peter has moments of rage which feel misplaced. Vanessa Kirby has lamentably little to do, serving only as a sounding board for Jackman’s lamentations.
This isn’t a terrible film. The cast are solid, the main story beats are fine and the strong subject matter will definitely resonate with some. It’s just not brilliant, and after such a strong debut it’s disappointing to find that The Son does not measure up to The Father.
The Son has been reviewed as part of the BFI London Film Festival. A general cinema release is expected on 11th Novemer 2022