The Son review: 'A flawed film with a kind heart'

10 September, 2022
The Son review: 'A flawed film with a kind heart'
What does it mean to be a good father? It's a question many who find themselves responsible for caring for a child will ask themselves at one point or another. Is it a case of not repeating the same mistakes as your own parents? Is it about listening to and believing in your child when they're at their most emotionally vulnerable? Or is it obeying what authority figures say is best, even if you risk feeling cruel for siding with a stranger over your own flesh and blood? Parenthood – with all its various obstacles that require careful moral unknotting – is the subject of Florian Zeller's The Son, a well-meaning but hokey drama based on his own stage play Le Fils.

Hot off the success of his 2020 feature film debut The Father, which won Zeller the Oscar for best adapted screenplay and lead actor Anthony Hopkins the best actor gong, The Son is yet another small-scale stage adaptation stuffed with thorny intergenerational family dynamics. Fifty-year-old Peter (Hugh Jackman), a high-flying businessman who has set his sights on a political career, seems to be at the apex of his professional and personal life. He has begun a new chapter with his beautiful partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and their newborn son Theo; meanwhile, his insular 17-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) resides mainly with his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern), whom he left three or so years earlier. Kate and Peter are communicative exes and doting parents to Nicholas, and despite the fact that Peter left Kate for another woman, everyone seems to have let bygones be bygones and moved on with their lives.

Except for Nicholas. Although he may initially seem like any other greasy-haired, "nobody understands me!" teenager with a propensity for slamming doors and pasting David Foster Wallace and Arthur Rimbaud posters on his walls, it soon becomes clear that he is seriously struggling with mental health issues – specifically, depression – that are causing him to skip school and self-harm. Initially shocked, his parents try several different tactics to help their son, from gentle probing to stern scolding to desperate offers to help. The scars of his parents' divorce are still all-too fresh, however, and as the source of blame for the break-up, Peter is forced to navigate why he has been saddled with such inordinate guilt regarding his son's mental health.

The film works at its best when it navigates how scary and slippery it is to try and help someone you love who is expressing suicide ideation, as well as the Sophie's Choice-style decisions when it comes to making someone's medical choices for them, often against their will. "Love will not be enough," Nicholas's doctor tells his parents – a terrifying thing to synthesise when we're told throughout our lives that love can cure all ills.

It's a shame, then, that Jackman and Dern over-egg their performances a little, leaning into stagey tics that come off as emotionally dishonest and misaligned with McGrath's more computerised approach. Kirby is pleasingly layered as the new, younger wife who seems to secretly resent the trouble Nicholas is causing for her newborn bubble, but perhaps the film's best performance comes in the form of a cameo by Anthony Hopkins as Peter's father Anthony, in a role almost as sinister as his days as Dr Lecter.

We see – through Nicholas, Peter and Anthony – three generations of men who are struggling to speak the same lingua franca, reflecting generational misunderstandings when it comes to male mental health (Anthony dismisses the youth of today as "snivelling cowards"), and the ruinous consequences that can have. That said, The Son's points are parlayed a little simplistically, with obvious foreshadowing making the film's ending a foregone conclusion. The ending, in particular, lacks gravitas as it's rather obvious what is about to happen – and even when the denouement arrives, it all whiffs of tear-jerking manipulation.

We feel visually short-changed with The Son, too, which is all the more disappointing when we remember how excellent production design, framing and direction in The Father helped us feel disorientated and claustrophobic, like its dementia-suffering protagonist. Here, the use of space feels less sophisticated, with a rather dull colour palette of dove grey and chalky blue, as well as largely uninspiring directorial choices. There's a gratingly over-used and cloying score that saps away any dramatic tension, which – paired with some histrionic acting at the film's close – makes you think how much better a performance Hugh Jackman gave as a man whose life is on the brink of ruin in 2019's sorely underseen Bad Education.

That isn't to say that The Son is an unmitigated disaster, or even anything that feels like showy Oscar bait: it is a flawed film with a kind heart, but a significantly less impressive progeny of The Father's talky triumph. Like father, like son? Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case.
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