‘The Son’ review: Florian Zeller’s sophomore effort disappoints despite a great Hugh Jackman [C+] | Venice Film Festival
Florian Zeller’s stage trilogy about parent-child relationships and the devastating consequences of mental illness was one of the biggest surprises in the theater world of the 2010s. The Father had very successful runs in Paris, London and New York, with its Broadway production getting strong notices and Tony love for both the play and its lead actor Frank Langella; The Mother had rave reviews in those same three cities, with Isabelle Huppert headlining the Broadway show; The Son rounded out the trilogy. After becoming an acclaimed playwright, Zeller decided to adapt his trilogy for the silver screen, pushing The Father, one of the most successful movies of 2020, straight to the Academy Awards, where the great Anthony Hopkins won his second Oscar. It was therefore not a surprise when the director announced that he would bring The Son on the screen, making it one of the most anticipated films of 2022.
The story begins with a call. It’s Kate (Laura Dern), and she’s calling Peter (Hugh Jackman), her ex-husband. Something is happening to their seventeen-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath), who has been missing from school for weeks. Puzzled and confused by the news, Peter decides to talk to his son who, during the conversation, reveals that he’s depressed and that he wants to live with his father. It’s not an easy situation for Peter, as he’s just had another child with his second wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby), who’s reluctant to welcome his husband’s son into their home. Peter is very busy at work, and he’s also been offered a path to a political career that would take him to Washington DC. How is he going to manage a life with a wife and a newborn son, a problematic teenager and a stressful work life? Nevertheless, Nicholas moves in with his father. Things seem to be starting out well for the Miller household: Nicholas has a new school, he’s getting better grades and, despite some tension, he’s developing a healthy relationship with Beth. This newly found serenity doesn’t seem to last though: painful discoveries and revelations plunge the Miller family into disarray, bringing the relationship between Peter and the people around him on the brink.
I remember the first time I watched The Father, and I was struck by how well written, well shot, well acted it was. It was a family story between a loving daughter and her ailing father, but it felt like a thriller, almost a horror movie: the confusion in Anthony’s mind was so deeply reflected by the filmmaking that the whole movie felt like a nightmare. The build-up of the film made the last sequence even more impactful, with devastating emotional effects on the viewer. The Son takes a different direction: it plays like a much more straightforward melodrama, and the end result leaves a lot to be desired.
The main issue with the film is how strangely manipulative it is. One would think that a story about a depressed, suffering teenager wouldn’t need a convoluted script or a self-important music score to accompany it, but this is what happens in The Son. The direction, the dialog, the music become overbearing, crushing the delicacy that this story needed. There is one scene in particular that involves the parents and their son discussing Nicholas’ possible treatment with a psychiatrist that surprised me for how negatively cynical and uncomfortable it is. It’s an unpleasant departure from the sensitive portrayal of a man’s descent into dementia that made The Father such a brilliant film. With such a heavy-handed and overwrought script, the themes of depression, of parental love, of the legacy of our parents are watered down, and their impact is greatly diminished.
The anticipation around The Son mainly centered around the performance given by Hugh Jackman, and he delivers a brilliant turn as a father desperately trying to help his son. Even when the script lets him down, Jackman is able to convey Peter’s despair, his frustration at not being able to help Nicholas the way he would love to, his genuine love for his son. It’s a touching depiction of parenthood at its most complex and terrifying. It would have been great for the film if Zen McGrath, the young actor who plays Nicholas, had been on the same level as Jackman’s: McGrath’s performance unfortunately comes off as rather immature, with an evident inability to carry the emotional weight of his character. The rest of the supporting cast is solid, from the ever-reliable Laura Dern to Vanessa Kirby (and watch out for one killer scene with Anthony Hopkins).
Despite the impressive talent on either side of the camera, The Son is a manifesto of squandered potential that would have benefitted from a different approach.
This review is from the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release The Son only in theaters on November 11.