Two years ago, director Florian Zeller made a film called The Father, for which Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor Oscar. Now he's got a movie called The Son. In two more years, will he make one called The Holy Spirit? I'm being somewhat humorous because both films deal with disturbing, yet different, subject matter, so a little levity feels useful. Still, one has to wonder, are they connected? Perhaps, at least in terms of examining relationships between parents and children. Does Zeller have a third part in mind that will compliment these? Only time will tell.
The title refers to Nicholas Miller (Zen McGrath), a teenage boy who has been skipping school for weeks. When mom Kate (Laura Dern) confronts him, he claims to be depressed, saying he wants to go live with his father Peter (Hugh Jackman). They arrange for this to happen, but Nicholas clearly has resentment toward Peter's wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby). Although he can't say it to his dad, Peter leaving Kate for Beth is an obvious, significant source of his anguish. After a brief honeymoon period, it becomes clear that Nicholas is not doing substantially better under this new living arrangement, leaving Peter to go into fix-it mode. And since he either isn't aware of his contribution to the problem or willfully chooses not to acknowledge it, the “fixing” means being manipulated by Nicholas.
There will be two schools of thought on The Son. Some people will say it's too shallow a treatment of adolescent depression and suicidal ideation. Others will insist that shallowness is the point – that the story is intentionally about how parents can be so afraid of those things that they don't take them seriously enough. I am in the latter camp. What fascinates me about the story, and what rings true to me, is Peter's refusal to see what's right in front of his face. His actions had major emotional repercussions for his son. He doesn't comprehend the depth of that pain, leaving him impotent to help Nicholas in any meaningful way.
Hugh Jackman is incredible in the lead role, perfectly capturing Peter's fear. Here's a man who worries about his kid going down the drain. That fear allows him to delude himself into thinking everything is okay when Nicholas is stable, and to become irrationally angry when he's not. Jackman is very effective in getting across the love his character feels for his son, while still making the underlying cluelessness palpable. The movie's best scene features a cameo from Anthony Hopkins as Peter's dad. Aside from the dysfunctional dynamic and he Jackman create, Hopkins blows the roof off the place by turning the character into a three-dimensional mental abuser in just a few minutes of screen time. Their scene together helps us understand Peter's personality much more fully.
Dern and Kirby are good, too. The former conveys Kate's helplessness in the wake of Nicholas's depression, and the latter demonstrates how Beth is the only one of the trio who genuinely sees what's going on. McGrath has perhaps the trickiest role, portraying a teen crying for help that never quite seems to come. At times, his performance feels a bit too mannered, but that's likely because Zeller writes the adult parts better than the adolescent one.
The Son has many sequences of gripping drama. It also has a terrible ending. The last five minutes of this film are incredibly misguided. First, there's an utterly predictable – and more than a little contrived – plot development. (Anton Chekhov would say, “Now, that's what I'm talking about!”) It leads to a weird fake-out that then turns into a shameless attempt at heartstring-pulling. Zeller doesn't appear to know how to end his story, leading him to veer into bad melodrama. That wrap-up prevents The Son from being the powerhouse it clearly strives to be. Even with a bum ending, it's the exceptional work from the cast that makes the movie worth seeing. Yes, you walk away with a twinge of disappointment from the director dropping the ball at a critical juncture. Put the finale out of your mind and appreciate the rest.
out of four
The Son is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving suicide, and strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.