Oscar-winning writer-director Florian Zeller is back with the second installment of his trilogy that revolves around mental health. While THE SON isn’t as stagey as THE FATHER, it’s neither as disorienting nor as powerful.
Peter Miller (Hugh Jackman, REMINISCENCE; THE GREATEST SHOWMAN) has, by all appearances, a pretty good life. He and his partner, Beth (Vanessa Kirby, PIECES OF A WOMAN; MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT), along with their newborn son, Theo, live in a swank New York City flat that includes a wall of exposed brick, he has an important job that affords him an office with unobstructed view of the Manhattan skyline, and a plum job offer in Washington, DC, is in the wind. His idyllic bubble bursts, though, when his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern, LITTLE WOMEN), knocks on his door one evening. It seems their 17-year-old son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath), has skipped school for the past month and Kate is at wits’ end with the teenager. Peter goes to see him the next day and Nicholas tells his father that he wants to live with him and Beth. Peter wants to be a better father to his son than own father (played by Anthony Hopkins, THE FATHER) was to him and he agrees to take him in, much to Beth’s quiet reluctance. He also enrols Nicholas in a school in their neighbourhood and the boy appears to be happy with the new arrangements. Appearances, though, are illusory.
While Zeller hit the nail on the head in THE FATHER when it came to depicting dementia and how it affects not just the person who is suffering from it but also the family members who have to deal with it, he seems to be out to lunch with this story about teenage depression. It’s bizarre that Peter, Kate and even Beth are all clueless at reading the warning signals that Nicholas is sending out to them. Once they put Nicholas into the new school, they think their problems are all solved and they can get back to their lives. The teen was able to skip a month of school before anyone was the wiser. Why aren’t Peter or Kate maintaining an open line of communication with the new school? At the same time, why aren’t they discussing Nicholas’ progress with his therapist? This isn’t 1980 where Beth Jarrett from ORDINARY PEOPLE buries her head in the sand when it comes to her son’s mental health issues. This is 2023 where we talk openly about these things. It’s also when many kids are on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. I’m not saying that’s a good thing but why aren’t Peter and Kate even discussing this option with the therapist?
Part of the answer, we learn, lies in Peter’s relationship with his own father. THE SON, it turns out, is supposed to be less about Nicholas than it is about Peter. However, with the exception of one masterfully acted five-minute scene between Jackman and Hopkins, Zeller barely scratches the surface of what makes Peter tick. Had Zeller focused his story on the Peter-Dad dynamic rather than on Nicholas’ angst, then maybe THE SON would have been a worthy second part of this trilogy. As it is, though, Zeller offers up very little about Nicholas’ mindset and even less about Peter’s. Peter says he’s doing everything he can to put Nicholas back on track but what’s he really doing? Not much, it seems. Faced with little character development, Zeller then turns to repetitive imagery to try to elicit some sympathy for Peter. His work life goes up and down while his home life spins round and round.
What we end up gleaning from Peter and Nicholas’ interactions, and this is perhaps by accident, is that Nicholas is really good at gaslighting everyone. The issue is not his depression. It’s that he’s a sociopath. Unfortunately, that wrinkle is completely ignored by everyone. He says he wants to be a writer but does he really or is he just telling Peter what Peter wants to hear? That’s what sociopaths do. He says he’s never gotten over his parents’ divorce and what he perceives to be Peter’s abandonment of him. One would presume that Peter has been physically, if not emotionally, present in his son’s life since the divorce so why has this become such a revelation now? Oh, that’s right. Nicholas is a sociopath and he knows exactly how to play Peter and Kate. Not to minimize Nicholas’ depression but Zeller doesn’t take the story where is needs to go.
Needless to say, THE SON is terribly frustrating and it’s completely predictable too. Zeller even telegraphs the ending to the audience ten minutes into the story’s second act. It then becomes another hour of watching elevators going up and down and washing machines spinning round and round before the inevitable happens.
THE SON opens in Hong Kong on Thursday (January 12th). It’s a dud. Hopefully, THE MOTHER or whatever the third part of the trilogy will be called, will be more interesting than this.
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