“The Son”

This film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival

“The Son” tells the story of a broken family struggling to support their son when he has a full-blown mental health crisis. Based on director Florian Zeller‘s stage play and adapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton, this intense family drama feels theatrical in its structure and pacing. It is a film that’s worth watching for the powerhouse lead performances from Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern, but the story is manipulative, melodramatic, and makes it clear where it’s eventually headed.

Peter (Jackman) is a busy, affluent New York attorney who is celebrating the birth of his son with his partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby). He doesn’t have a lot of time to spend with the new mother and infant, and his already hectic lifestyle is suddenly upended when he gets a visit from his ex-wife Kate (Dern). She’s concerned about their 17-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath), so much so that she admits that he frightens her with his sudden mood swings and deeply troubling behavior. Nicholas has been skipping school and acting out, so Kate suggests that the teen move in with his dad and new baby brother with the hope that it will lift his spirits. Peter and Beth agree, but they get a lot more than they bargain for.

The film aims for realism in its depiction of a mental health crisis that’s tearing a family apart, but Zeller’s style leans too heavily on in-your-face aggressiveness. There’s a lot of screaming and crying and breakdowns that stress the complexity of a fractured family’s dynamics, and the ending is premeditated and easily foreseeable from early on. The themes of parental missteps, regret, and guilt are unremarkable and a victim of convention, and the depressed teen story line has been told more authentically in better films. Where it gets interesting is in Zeller’s exploration of the failures of a father and his father before, and the drive to correct past mistakes by working to restore the present.

It’s frustrating how Kate and Peter dismiss Nicholas, especially when the boy clearly expresses that something is wrong. He literally cries out for help, yet all of the adults in his life come up short at every turn. At first the former couple ignores and then grows irritated at their son’s behavior, which causes them to make all the wrong decisions. Blinded by both shame and ignorance, neither Kate nor Peter want to admit their failures as parents but in doing so, they actually fail their son. It’s an incredibly tragic and sad thing to watch, especially in the intimate setting that Zeller creates with his film.

This is where the story falls apart. Instead of being a catalyst for a serious discussion about mental health, it just feels manipulative for the sake of being so. One scene includes Peter’s visit to see his own father (Anthony Hopkins), a man who never was around to pay much attention to his son either. (Cue “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin). I suppose if this film gets even one person talking about mental health and depression it could be considered somewhat of a success.

While I don’t want to sound too harsh, another big misstep was casting McGrath as Nicholas. It can’t be easy to share the screen with talents like Dern, Jackman, and Kirby, but his turn as a mopey, depressed teenager is so obvious and melodramatic that is almost feels like a parody. He seems uncomfortable and out of his element with a performance that rings insincere.

Coupled with a lack of deeper character development, the film never successfully creates a bond between Nicholas and the audience. While it’s perfectly okay (and expected) to not get a concrete answer on what’s causing his depression, I never understood the teen’s pain on a deeper level. As a result, I didn’t feel much empathy towards anyone in “The Son.” When it comes to a supposedly hard-hitting drama, that’s never a good thing.

By: Louisa Moore

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