Promising ‘The Son’ Disappoints in the End

As an actor, Hugh Jackman is pretty incredible. He has played a circus legend, a superhero with razor-sharp claws, an aggressive stage musician and now this: a normal dad. Well, a normal Hollywood dad anyway. He’s the main character in Florian Zeller’s new film where despite the name (The Son) the film focuses more on Jackman’s portrayal of Peter Miller than his troubled 17-year-old son, Nicholas. It’s a heartbreaking tale that begins briefly on a positive note before traveling down the rabbit hole of mental illness.

The film establishes Peter’s life as a good one. He’s a successful attorney enjoying parenthood the second time around with new wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby). But the happiness is interrupted when he finds his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern) at his door pleading to talk with him about Nicholas (Zen McGrath). He’s been skipping school for months, is un-communitive and he’s scaring her. Kate is at her wit’s end with the teen. It suggests that this behavior isn’t completely new but has escalated recently.

Laura Dern and Hugh Jackman (Sony Pictures Classics)

It is decided that Nicolas will move in with Peter, despite Beth’s reservations. Nicolas begins life at a new school and his grades seemingly get better. He makes new friends. He’s happier now. Maybe all he needed was a change. Probably not. While Peter is patting his back on a job well done and Kate is drowns in self-pity thinking that she is a terrible mother, it is Beth who notices Nicholas’ new happiness isn’t real. He’s depressed. As for McGrath, he does a pretty good job as the tormented teen who can’t seem to express his struggles fully to his parents. However, it is clear that his world fell apart somewhat when his dad left him and his mother for a younger woman, a point that he brings up over and over again in the film.

Anthony Hopkins (Sony Pictures Classics)

Though sincere, The Son is weighted down with its melodramatic tones. Depression and suicide prevention is serious stuff and anyone who has had a friend or loved one struggle with such things will find some elements presented here as familiar. But the material is a bit heavy handed with long shots of the individual characters starring off into space. A washing machine is shown, meant for some symbolism of some kind. And some of the dialogue here is a bit too much as well. “Don’t cry my little sunbeam” coos Kate trying to calm her son down. (Dern almost makes it sound believable.) A pivotal moment takes place during a discussion between Peter and his own father (Anthony Hopkins) mimics Peter’s relationship with Nicholas. It’s dramatic, but it’s a bit over-the-top. And there one doctor in this movie who is out of control.

Hugh Jackman and Zen McGrath (Sony Pictures Classics)

Presenting these types of family dynamics along with depression can be difficult to portray accurately. It’s hard to beat 1980’s Oscar-winning Ordinary People which was directed by Robert Redford and starred Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch and Timothy Hutton. It was a shockingly dramatic tale and The Son tries to do the same and with some success, but overall it is a disappointment.

Main image: Zen McGrath, Laura Dern and Hugh Jackman in The Son. (Sony Pictures Classics)

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