The Son is another superb film from Florian Zeller, tackling mental health, family dynamics, generational trauma, and the choices we face as parents.
Peter (Hugh Jackman, of Bad Education) and Beth (Vanessa Kirby, of The Crown) are the first characters we meet in Florian Zeller’s (The Father) The Son. Life couldn’t be better for our two protagonists: Peter, a businessman, is about to be offered a promotion, and Beth spends her days looking after their newborn son. Of course, things aren’t as easy as they seem, and we find out right away, when Peter receives a phone call from his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern, of Jurassic Park), informing him that Nicholas (Zen McGrath, of Utopia), their son, “hasn’t been going to school for almost a month.” Which leads them both to ask themselves the very same question that’s crossing the audience’s minds: why?
But Nicholas doesn’t have an answer. “It’s life. It’s weighing me down,” he eventually tells his father, knowing very well that he won’t be able to understand him, and yet he asks if he can move in with him and Beth for a little while. Of course, Peter agrees, and, just like that, Nicholas is enrolled into a new school, getting invited to parties, and opening up to his dad and her girlfriend. His father tells his ex-wife that their son is doing better, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.
In only a few scenes, at the beginning of the film, writer and director Florian Zeller sets up a scenario that may seem simple on the surface, but that is the opposite of that. There are two well-meaning parents whose divorce highly affected their son, and there’s a girlfriend who’s actually really nice and empathic but who can’t help but have contrasting feelings towards her boyfriend’s son, even more so since Nicholas tends to keep his feelings bottled up inside, and Beth has a newborn to look after as well. And then there are a mother who feels like a failure because she’s unable to understand her son, and a guilt-ridden father who carries his own share of trauma, and who worries about becoming exactly like his old man.
And so, Peter devotes all his energies to his son, desperate to understand what’s going on but doing all the wrong things, from suggesting that he’d go out and see people to confronting him about his behaviour with accusations instead of acceptance, judging him for his actions, blaming him for his predicament and “forbidding” him from doing certain things, even going so far as to use guilt-tripping, manipulation and violence. It’s obvious that Nicholas is unwell, and it’s painful to see Peter fail at doing the one thing his son would need – being someone who’s there for him, listens to what he has to say, accepts that he’s not doing so well, and loves him despite all of that. But we also understand that, just like Kate and Beth, Peter doesn’t have the tools to be a supportive father to his son, and can’t quite figure out that there doesn’t have to be a reason for someone to be depressed. And so, the situation escalates, until Peter and Kate have to make the most difficult choice of all: should they keep trying to help their son on their own, or should they let professionals handle him against his will?
This doesn’t even begin to describe the beauty of Florian Zeller’s film, an intimate drama with many layers and a film that will entertain you with endearing scenes only to hit you hard when you least expect it to. Just like The Father, The Son is adapted from a play that the director wrote, and that was adapted for the screen by writer Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), and there’s a theatrical dimension to it that makes it an immersive, quietly powerful watch. At the same time, the movie also uses the cinematic medium to its advantage, with flawless editing (Yorgos Lamprinos), cinematography (Ben Smithard) and sound design (David Lascelles & Niv Adiri) that create a feeling of suspension of time, ensuring we’re always in tune with three characters who aren’t often together but who are always connected by their preoccupations, and adding an everpresent layer of tension that keeps us on our toes.
Just like the characters, we are also part of the story, as we are prompted to ponder the same questions the film asks its protagonists: what would we do if we were in Kate, Peter and Beth’s shoes? How can a parent deal with their son’s depression if they don’t understand what depression means? Can generational trauma be stopped or are we destined to repeat our own fathers and mothers’ mistakes? And, more importantly, when did we stop caring about who our child really is and what they need from us as parents?
Both thematically rich and well-executed on a technical level, The Son also boasts impressive performances from its entire cast. The standout is undoubtedly Zen McGrath, who makes young Nicholas just as enigmatic and expressive as he needs to be and is able to convey many contrasting feelings with simple glances, presenting us with one of the most accurate portrayals of mental health in film we’ve seen in a while. But Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern and Vanessa Kirby are just as good, and are all given enough space to shine, whether they’re goofily dancing around or delivering emotionally charged, poignant scenes. Anthony Hopkins only has one scene in the movie, and yet he’s also memorable, giving us an authentic, enlightening portrayal of Peter’s father that adds yet another layer of meaning to this complex, poignant film.
The Son is another superb piece of storytelling from director Florian Zeller, and a film that couldn’t have unfolded and ended in any other possible way. It will shatter your heart into a million pieces, but it will also depict a situation you’ll find familiar, educating you on mental health – a subject that couldn’t be more timely – while also reminding you that, after all, we’re all on the same boat. While it isn’t afraid to show the ugliest, most toxic parts of ourselves, it also doesn’t judge us, because we’re all trying our best. As is often the case with Zeller’s work, The Son is ultimately about what it means to be human, and an absolute must-watch at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.
The Son premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival on September 7, and will open in New York and LA on November 25 and nationwide on January 20, 2023.