REVIEW – “The Son”

One of the better films to come out of the 2020s thus far has been Florian Zeller’s The Father, which is a harrowing portrait of a man struggling with dementia. It’s a film that was nowhere near my radar as it was coming out, but upon release I was floored by how equally inventive and emotionally draining it is. Needless to say, the success of The Father critically and Anthony Hopkins winning best actor at the 2021 Academy Awards solidified Florian Zeller as a name to look out for in the future; and that’s what made the existence of The Son such a major player early-on in this year’s awards cycle. The Son, which is based on Zeller’s play of the same name, follows Peter (Hugh Jackman) who is busy with a new-born, his new wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and an overwhelming work-life that he can’t seem to separate from his personal life. All of this is shaken up when his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) informs Peter of their teenage son Nicholas’ (Zen McGrath) trouble with school and mental health. This leads Peter into taking Nicholas into his home to live with him and his family, but it gives Peter a dark insight into just how bad Nicholas’ mental health has become.

As someone who was not familiar with the plays that Florian Zeller’s films are based off of, I was a bit surprised to find out that this is supposedly set within the same world as his film The Father – as Anthony Hopkins reprises his role from that film, but barely with any semblance of what I saw in that character. But even so, the reminder of the connective tissue between the two films really makes The Son a perplexing experience as it is just about worse than Zeller’s previous effort in every conceivable way. I don’t want to be unfair to Zeller and focus too much on his previous film and comparing the two, but where The Father felt like a steady, existential, and painfully truthful portrait of dementia – The Son feels like a completely dated and borderline tone-deaf representation of mental illness in youth and how it spawns generations when left unchecked. There are large ideas here in terms of the ways it explores and addresses mental health, but the ambition is not at all matched with a steady hand. If anything, The Son feels like a needlessly cruel and dated film for a large portion of it.

What makes The Son truly perplexing is the fact that there are so many good elements at play in spite of everything I previously mentioned. I don’t think any performance in particular is bad, but more-so it just feels like every talented performer here is restrained by the confines of how melodramatic and forced the material is here. Everyone here is trying their best, but it just doesn’t really have much weight when it feels like the performances are an uphill battle against some truly bad material. Even with that being said, I do think Hugh Jackman is reliably fantastic here and it’s a shame such an emotional performance where he lays it all out on the line is lost within a muddled melodrama. There are sparks of potential throughout where these performers feel like they’re cracking the code, but then Zeller’s script does something completely preposterous narratively, emotionally, thematically, etc.

One of the biggest head-scratchers with The Son is simply how artificial and dumbed-down all of the characters feel. There are undeniably ways to talk about how mental illness is addressed in this country and how parents often have hard times responding to these issues. But The Son takes any potential for nuanced discussion and especially any potential for realism and throws it out the window; it truly feels like he is hell-bent on dumbing down the characters for shock-value and hammy emotional moments at any given point. This is a film that is willing to compromise any sort of authenticity or sincerity for a cheap reaction from its audience – and all of the characters, themes, and messages feel worse by default. I really wanted to love this as I found The Father to be such a staggering, emotional achievement – but this is one of the worst sophomore slumps I think I’ve ever witnessed.


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