The topic of depression and mental illness are important issues, ones that are finally getting the media attention they desperately need. The Son, the new film by director and writer Florian Zeller, is the latest film to try and dive into this complex and often misrepresented topic. While The Father managed to get critic and audience praise, and even Oscar wins, this latest work feels like a cheap imitation, treating its subjects with the care given in an after school special, over something worthy of praise. Even with Hugh Jackman’s powerful and emotional performance, the script and the rest of the cast leave this film feeling lifeless.
The Son is a very low-key affair, giving a look into the life of fifty-year-old Peter (Hugh Jackman), a nondescript businessman at the pinnacle of his career. He has big dreams of jumping into politics and is starting to slowly build a new life with a new wife Emma (Vanessa Kirby) and their son Thomas. This is until ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) brings it to his attention that their 17-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) is struggling, not going to school and unfortunately not doing well.
What at first seems like typical teenage rebellion is quickly shown to be something much more deeply seated and something that will take time and care to deal with. Nicholas is struggling, feeling unloved and has strong feelings of self harm. It is a hard situation for any parent to find themselves in, and it is only made worse by the fact Nicholas is manipulating the situation, so they find it hard to know what is really going on.
There is a lot going on in The Son, from the issues of depression, struggling with family life, and the resentments felt by loved ones when things change. All these things are worthy topics, and need the care to show them effectively and with sensitivity. Unfortunately, The Son tries to hammer home many of these issues with the tact of a sledgehammer crashing through drywall. While there are some important points brought up throughout the movie, Zen McGrath brings Nicolas to the screen with a manipulative and often tactless portrayal of mental illness. There are many scenes of him staring off into the distance or slamming doors, rather than crafting a well-rounded character we can understand and sympathize with.
“There is a heart beating under the surface of The Son, but it never manages to rise to the level of Zeller’s other work.”
Hugh Jackman, on the other hand, brings a great sense of purpose to the role. Even with a script that feels awkward, there is a great sense of importance to the character he brings to life on screen. While it does not save the overall experience, it makes the over two-hour runtime at least moderately bearable. The best performance in The Son has to go to Anthony Hopkins as Peter’s father, bringing a truly chilling character to life, even if the scene was more of a cameo.
The Son wants to bring to light the struggles that three generations of men go through, all struggling to express their feelings, struggles and needs to each other, but it never fails to achieve this lofty goal. I wanted to like the film, and walked in with high hopes for a true attempt at dealing with metal illness in a mature and complex way, but what we got was something that felt hollow.
The script does not take the time to expand its characters, and the surface level look at mental illness and how a family struggles with it never feels genuine or true to the trauma many people face. While there are issues that are important to talk about, there is as much time put on awkward conversations, throw away lines, or dance parties as there is on serious issues that need time, care and tact to be dealt with properly. While many of these issues could rest on it being translated from French, that does not excuse treating the focus of the movie in such a sloppy way.
The set design and staging feels lacklustre and does nothing for the story. Downtown New York is such a vibrant place, filled with many types of building and interior, but The Son ops for drab city streets, and an apartment that feels more at home in a 90s sitcom than a serious drama about mental illness. Also, the use of a washing machine as foreshadowing, while interesting in concept, fails on every level when seen in action.
There is a heart beating under the surface of The Son, but it never manages to rise to the level of Zeller’s other work. For people that love melodrama, there maybe something worthy here, but for me, almost nothing worked in the movie, being a major low point for TIFF 2022. I can only hope Zeller brings more to his next project, because as it stands now, The Son simply did not deliver where it needed to make anything worth talking about.