Can any of us really ever understand our own families? That’s the question at the heart of Florian Zeller’s heavy-handed mental health melodrama about generational rifts and inherited issues. Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern and Vanessa Kirby are all on exceptionally fine form, but they’re all acting their socks off in a film that really doesn’t deserve them.
Zeller hit gold in 2020 with the beautifully wrought dementia drama, The Father, picking up two Oscars among a raft of plaudits. Returning now with another adaptation of one of his own plays, Zeller pitches The Son as a sort-of-sequel – an unrelated successor that only shares a vague theme, a credit for Anthony Hopkins and another annoyingly nice apartment.
This time we’re in upscale New York, watching big-shot lawyer Peter (Jackman) try to balance his work life around raising a baby with his girlfriend, Beth (Kirby). Just as he’s on the brink of an important political appointment, his ex (Dern) rings up with worries about their teenaged son, Nicholas (newcomer Zen McGrath) – now skipping school, suffering from depression and asking to come and live with his dad. Peter isn’t thrilled, Beth even less so, but they both agree to try and help Nicholas work through his problems.
There are echoes here of better films like We Need To Talk About Kevin and Beautiful Boy, but any comparisons only make The Son feel clumsier – with Zeller shovelling melodrama over every nuance in sight. Making the decision to tell a story about teenaged depression from a dad’s POV is a potentially powerful one, with a lot of value to be found in showing how deep the struggle runs in any family. Zeller, however, spends most of the film as baffled by emotional intimacy as his main characters. Maybe that’s his excuse for writing Nicholas as a stereotype of a mopey teen, hunched under his hair, deadpanning his lines like emo lyrics.
Where The Father helped audiences try and understand mental health issues by letting everything feel slightly disorienting, here the darkness and pain isn’t felt, it’s endured from a distance. Designed to be as frustrating as it must feel for any parent, Zeller’s writing lets the gameplan down with its clunkiness: never really selling the idea that Nicholas is actually suffering, and rarely that Peter actually wants to help.
Ending with a gut-punch dealt so heavily that it dulls the rest of the film, The Son shows its stage roots at every turn – written with a showiness that usually comes from inexperience; like a sixth-former showing off that they understand subtext. What a shame, then, that everyone is so good in it.
Hopkins steals the film with a wonderfully unlikeable cameo, but it’s the triple-header of Jackman, Dern and Kirby that really lifts the film far above its own script. The less said about McGrath the better, but it’s definitely not his fault. The Son would have made (and probably did make) a brilliant stage play, but it makes the big-screen jump here with a bit of a stumble. What looks good from the back of the house doesn’t always read as well in close-up, and the biggest frustration is wondering how much better it all could have been with a bit of fine-tuning.
- Director: Florian Zeller
- Starring: Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby
- Release date: February 17