I’ve seen this movie before. But not onscreen.
I know that, as a critic, my role is supposed to distance myself from a film. Talk about what’s good and what’s not so you know in advance (and I will discuss that here as well). But with Florian Zeller’s The Son, I admit that it’s a little harder to do.
Written and directed by Florian Zeller, The Son focuses on Peter (Hugh Jackman), a powerful executive who lives with his new wife (Vanessa Kirby) and newborn son. Jack seems to have it all but, when he receives a call from his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) about their teenage son Nicholas (Zen McGrath), his new life is quickly upended. Having missed school for months, Nicholas has become distant and angry since his parent’s divorce. However, when Nicholas moves in with his father, Peter struggles to connect with his son while balancing his new life and career.
Before we talk about the specifics of the film, forgive me as I speak about my own journey for a moment. (Feel free to jump past this if you’re not interested.) For two decades, I worked with teens who dealt with (seemingly) every possible social and family issue that could cause stress within the home. Drug and alcohol addiction, physical and verbal abuse, LGBTQ tensions, teen pregnancies and more were simply part of our daily life for our youth and we journeyed alongside them. However, mental health issues, ‘cutting’ and suicidal issues may have been tops on the list. I’ve spoken with youth who wanted the ‘release’ of self-harm and watched as parents struggled to make sense of what was happening with their kids.
It’s this lens that shaped my viewing of The Son.
As a prequel to Zeller’s previous Oscar-winning film The Father, The Son has received mixed reviews. From the performances of its leads (especially McGrath) to accusations of being exploitative in its storytelling, different pieces have pointed fingers at different aspects of the film that don’t always ‘click’. And, admittedly, some of these criticisms can be certainly be fair. While Father was subtler in its exploration of dementia, The Son takes a more traditional approach to its narrative structure. With that in mind, it’s not unfair to suggest that McGrath’s work does fall slightly flat in places and some of the performances do feel as though they’re acting.
But, from my experience, The Son is definitely accurate.
In The Son, Zeller’s script does an excellent job of tracking the realities of teen mental health struggles. Told from the perspective of his father, Nicolas’ slide inside his own feelings is brought to life with painful authenticity. Moments of levity that trigger disconnection are not uncommon for teens struggling in this area and Zeller depicts the complexity of that balance quite well. However, because the film is told from the perspective of his father, these moments leave can the viewer confused. Why is Nicholas angry when he has a supportive family? Why does he feel the need to act out?
“When I was young, we didn’t deal with things this way.”
By embedding these ideas into his screenplay, Zeller highlights the questions that plague parents when their children are struggling. Just as Peter and Kate attempt to reconcile the infant that they knew and the youth that they have now, many other parents find themselves on similar emotional journeys. There’s a helplessness that they cannot explain and a guilt that they cannot shake. Sometimes, they simply stem from their own desire to help their children. Other times, those feelings of inadequacy are justified.
In this way, The Son shows parents as honestly as possible by depicting their love for their children but also their failings and flaws. Peter is a man who felt disconnected with his own father and has difficulty doing so with his own. His own brokenness affects his parenting today, despite his desire to be a better father than his was. These are imperfect people in an imperfect world (but, unfortunately, exist in an imperfect film).
It’s in these moments of honesty that Zeller’s script for The Son makes an impact. Though not as subtle as The Father, Zeller’s script effectively immerses the viewer in a world that’s all too real for many families. For this reason, the film could be important viewing for those looking for answers. And, hopefully, a film like this can prevent it from being a story that they’ve lived themselves.
The Son is available in theatres on Friday, January 20th, 2023.