Hot off The Father and its Oscar success Florian Zeller stood a strong chance to become the next Sam Mendes. His ability to tackle dark, emotional family drama quickly made him a sought-after auteur. The direction of The Father surprised many, and he quickly began production on his follow-up, The Son. Based on another one of his plays, Zeller looked to continue his hot streak. Unfortunately, The Son is inherently weaker than its predecessor. Despite Hugh Jackman giving it his all, The Son fails to leave any lasting impact.
When his 17-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) begins struggling in school, Peter (Jackman) takes a more active role in his life. Nicholas cannot live with his mother (Laura Dern) after skipping school for at least a month. Peter looks to balance Nicholas’ arrival with Beth (Vanessa Kirby) voicing her unease. Peter and Beth have just had their first child together, and Nicholas shows animosity in her direction. The family struggles to find balance as Nicholas’ depression takes over his life.
Part of what makes The Son so frustrating is that it genuinely contains strong ideas. The frustration a father may feel about his inability to communicate with his son is palpable in Jackman’s performance. Dern’s internal feeling of failure and rejection paints her as a woman trying to hold onto her family in any way possible. Kirby charms again but clarifies that her concern for her child will always be her main priority.
However, Zeller’s depiction of depression misses the mark. The screenplay forces the audience to view Nicholas as selfish. Every time the family attempts to connect, he is shown to actively push away. Beyond that, his inability to articulate his frustrations is depicted as a character flaw. McGrath struggles in the role, which only adds to the issues, but this falls on the director. Zeller lacks the skill to help the young actor stage scenes against Jackman and Kirby. Instead, he gets left behind.
Even beyond the frustrating lack of characterization given to McGrath, The Son has characters make inexplicable decisions. It is as if they spun a “bad decisions” wheel at every turn, giving each character the sheen of deeply selfish people. Many of these decisions are bad on their face and the ways they convey ideas to each other only make it worse. If someone is truly dangerous, upset, or sad, only sociopaths without empathy would attack them for their flaws. In The Son, every principal character does it and then circles back to deliver a death blow later in the story.
With unlikable characters, the performances should be lost. Yet Kirby and Jackman stand as characters who deserve empathy. They bring nuanced and layered performances to a film that does not deserve them. While others shout to the rafters, they charm their way through it. Even if you dislike The Son, it’s clear that Zeller could not communicate his ideas with the camera. Jackman, Kirby, and at times Dern all hit the emotional beats required.
Ultimately, the frustrations and failures of The Son fall on Zeller. As writer and director, he cannot keep The Son from devolving into after-school-special territory. Simultaneously, he paints the character with mental health concerns as wildly manipulative and villainous. Framing illness, especially mental health, in this fashion is borderline irresponsible. There is certainly a point where even those that struggle with these ailments use it as an excuse. Yet this child seemingly calls out for help at every opportunity. Ignoring the red flags makes for a convenient plot but also loses all authenticity.