Films portraying characters with mental illness are a common occurrence. While often clumsy in such portrayals in the past, writers and directors have, on the whole, gotten better over time in treating these characters and their stories with greater sensitivity. The Son, the new film from Florian Zeller (2020’s The Father) is that Zeller wants to provide a sensitive portrayal of teenage depression. But unfortunately, a ham-fisted script and a central performance that falls flat hamper that desire. The Son is a disappointment, especially compared to the vital The Father.
The film opens with Kate (Laura Dern) visiting her ex-husband Peter (Hugh Jackman). She has found out that their son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) has been skipping school for over a month. She and Nicholas argue constantly, and she doesn’t know what to do. She insinuates that Peter has essentially abandoned Nicholas in favor of his new wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and their newborn son Theo. When Peter goes to talk to Nicholas, the young man says that he needs a change in his life, and asks to move in with his father. While Beth has her doubts, as Peter is a high-powered attorney and is rarely home, Peter wants to help his son and agrees. While Nicholas initially seems to be settling in with the family, there are soon signs that he is in need of deeper help. Beth finds a knife under Nicholas’s mattress, leading Peter to find self-harm scars on his son’s arms. The young man has no interest in school, or his past hobbies, or in finding friends. Soon he is in the same situation at Peter’s house that he was at Kate’s – skipping school to wander the city and sit in the park each day. Nicholas then goes to Kate for help, repeating some of his earlier complaints about her, but this time aimed at Peter. Following a suicide attempt, Nicholas is hospitalized. The doctor (Hugh Quarshie) asks for the family to allow them to continue treatment, while Nicholas tearfully begs for another chance to come home.
Among the primary problems with The Son is the script, from Zeller and Christopher Hampton. It is, like The Father, based on one of Zeller’s plays. But where The Father was inventive in its structure, using the lead character’s deepening dementia to disorient the audience and strengthen its story, the screenplay for The Son is like a blunt object. It hammers home the same points about depression over and over again. It uses the family washing machine and an accompanying Chekov’s hunting rifle as a very strange surrogate for Nicholas’s mental state. It also hampers its cast with odd, formal dialogue that often feels unnatural. Motivations are also muddled, as characters seem to dip back and forth on what they care about. In one moment, Kate is telling Nicholas that he needs to be understanding of his dad’s new job as part of a presidential campaign. In the next, Peter is saying he “never gave a shit about politics”. It is honestly sometimes hard to believe that this came from the same writer-director as The Father.
The acting in the film is a mixed bag. The best part of the film is Jackman, who is giving a powerful performance, despite the limitations of the script. Dern is given less to do, but she is very good as well. The unfortunate weak link is Zen McGrath, performing here in his first significant film outside of his native Australia. He just isn’t up to the task of this character and it essentially sinks the film. His depression is often just signified by simple monotone, and he is rarely believable in the more emotional scenes. Anthony Hopkins appears for a single scene as Jackman’s overbearing father. It’s a terribly written scene, and Hopkins just seems to be going through the motions in it. It feels like it is just a favor to Zeller after leading Hopkins to his second Oscar, just to have the actor’s name and picture on the poster for this film. If Zeller makes another film, let’s hope it follows in The Father’s footsteps.
The Son is now playing in theaters.