‘The Son’ Is Two Hours Of Misery And Disappointment – Film Review

Sony Pictures Classics

It’s hard to imagine something written and directed by Florian Zeller, who brought 2020’s The Father and that flawless performance from Anthony Hopkins, could be so poor. The Son is not just a weak movie from the French playwright and novelist but a downright dated and offensive exploration of clinical depression.

The son in question is Nicholas (played by relative newcomer Zen McGrath), whose father, Peter Miller (Hugh Jackman), is a successful Manhattan attorney. Nicholas’ home life is complicated since Peter left his wife Kate (Laura Dern) to start a new family with the younger Beth (Vanessa Kirby).

Nicholas has been skipping school for a month and has started to cut himself. Kate is scared of her son’s behaviour and mental health, so she sends him to live with Peter, Beth and their young son Theo.

The first and most significant issue is that Zeller doesn’t know how to address mental health issues, let alone write and direct a movie about them. It will be advisable to never show this drama to anyone dealing with a loved one’s mental health or to anyone going through their struggles.

Written by Zeller and the acclaimed playwright Christopher Hampton, his collaborator and translator on The Father, for which they both shared a screenwriting Academy Award, this script needs to be more tactful when it comes to dramatizing the teenage mental health crisis. The Father tackles Alzheimer’s with such subtle honesty the inauthentic and manipulative script for The Son is a real shock.

When these four lead characters are not shouting at each other, they are spouting relatively insensitive comments about living with someone in the middle of a breakdown. Peter demands answers from his son about his behaviour, like mental health is something you choose to have. Everyone treats it like Nicholas chooses to feel bad or is looking for attention.

The Son lacks light and shade; it’s generally wall-to-wall misery for two hours. One of the few forays into lightness is when Beth encourages the father and son to dance to Tom Jones together. They seem to have a good time, but Nicholas’ sullen face in a close-up says more about dealing with depression than any of the writing manages. Perhaps Beth’s age has helped her better understand Nicholas’ depression; the script isn’t fully formed enough to work this out.

These competent actors are left stranded by a very insensitive script. Jackman feels slightly out of his depth with this heavy script; there is no room for his usual brand of charm. The Son too often focuses on how Peter feels about Nicholas, who is unsympathetic to mental health and often falls into the generic rich, lawyer dad territory. 

Zen McGrath, who this entire film centres around, just can’t handle the weight of this role. His character is severely underdeveloped, for the light performance does not assist light performance. We know very little about Nicholas asides from his mental health issues. He’s sad and doesn’t know why he is as close as we get to character development. It’s hard to find any reason to care about Nicholas; the script never entirely communicates what it wants to say about the teenage character.

The excellent Laura Dern weeps her way through the role; her decision regarding her ill son is never explained in a way that doesn’t make her seem unsympathetic. Vanessa Kirby is underwritten as the stepmother whose busy husband leaves her to pick up the responsibility. It’s a shame this talented actress, who has arguably the most interesting role as a new mum forced to deal with her teenage stepson, is wasted. No one in this melodrama feels like a tangible person you can sympathize with.

Anthony Hopkins makes a small appearance as Peter’s wealthy absentee father, breathing life into the script. He is angry Peter is turning down a chance to get into politics to help Nicholas. The Son misses the opportunity to investigate fatherhood and how we learn the role of our parents. It also fails to examine how mental health is seen through the eyes of different generations of the same family. Hopkins’ appearance seems to offer audiences little more than connecting The Son to his earlier, better work.

Zeller and Hampton’s script seems to revel in its lack of knowledge about clinical depression and teenage behaviour. Anyone watching will be able to see the ending coming, but audiences will probably be surprised at how offensive and manipulative it is. This melodrama is more likely to incite anger than tears, especially if you have ever lost anyone to this horrible disease.

The Son opened in wide release in North America on January 20 and opens in UK theatres on February 17

by Amelia Harvey

Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy

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