Hugh Jackman’s affecting performance as a father accustomed to managing every situation, in over his head with his clinically depressed teenage son, provides a plaintive emotional center to Florian Zeller’s second feature. But therein lies the imbalance — this adaptation of the French dramatist’s stage play is called The Son, not The Father, the title of its predecessor. While it’s part of the point that young people are often unable to articulate the complex roots of their mental health issues, that block keeps the title figure, and the performance of newcomer Zen McGrath in that role, at an anesthetizing distance.
The Sony Classics release, opening Nov. 11 after Venice and Toronto festival premieres, is a depressing film about depression. But not because it shows noteworthy insight about that illness or pulls you into the head of its agonized title figure, Nicholas (McGrath), who lacks the character shading and specificity to be much more than a statistic. Only in the fumbling attempts of his hotshot lawyer father Peter (Jackman) to nurture him back to stability does Nicholas really touch us. And the elegant austerity of Zeller’s direction makes the outcome a given, which turns The Son into a punishing slog.
The Bottom Line
Peter has settled into a contented life in Brooklyn with his new partner, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and their infant son when ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) turns up at the door distraught about their 17-year-old child from that marriage. Nicholas has been skipping school for a month with no explanation, risking expulsion, and his coldness toward his mother scares her. Peter promises to talk to him.
Nicholas shows no warmth toward his father either; he’s still feeling the sting of abandonment. When Peter tries to draw him out, all he gets is, “It’s life. It’s weighing me down.” Nicholas wants to come live with his father and his baby half-brother, making his case by confessing that he’s been having dark thoughts and fearing for his sanity. Beth already has her hands full taking care of a newborn; she correctly assumes that with Peter away for long hours at work, she’ll be the one dealing with surly Nicholas, whom she barely knows.
Like a “Master of the Universe,” only without the ego, Peter works from a sleek steel and glass Midtown Manhattan tower with breathtaking views. He’s been offered his dream job, on a promising political campaign in D.C. But what should be a period of exciting change turns into one of narrowing options as the extent of Nicholas’ problems becomes clear. Suddenly, Peter’s attention is pulled away from work and his unresolved feelings about his own unhappy childhood resurface, making him strive to do better as a parent.
The best scene in The Son is the brief appearance of the Oscar-winning lead of The Father, Anthony Hopkins, playing Peter’s well-heeled political careerist dad. Lunch at the latter’s stately Washington home is a coolly civil affair until Peter starts in on the old man’s parental failings, turning him instantly defensive: “Just fucking get over it.” More of this kind of savage bite would have brought needed tonal variation to Zeller’s one-note new movie.
Retreating deeper inside himself, Nicholas refuses to return Kate’s calls, while Peter reassures his ex-wife that the boy is doing much better, only seeing what he wants to see. Peter continues to cling to memories of what a happy kid his son was, returning in his mind to an idyllic family boating vacation in Corsica. He finds himself spouting the same platitudes that made him resent his own father.
But all that contributes to keeping Nicholas stranded on the margins in his own story. He starts a new school with no improvement, consents to minimal communication with his therapist and gets caught self-harming. “It relieves me,” he tells his father of the cutting. “It’s a way to channel the pain.” By the time he makes his first suicide attempt and Peter and Kate are forced to consider a psych ward, there’s only one way a movie this dour can go.
The sole moment of relief — aside from the Corsica flashbacks and a characteristically Zeller-esque deception near the end — is a happy evening during which Beth coaxes Peter into busting out the dance stylings that first caught her eye. Nicholas loosens up enough to mimic his dad’s exuberantly goofy moves as unfamiliar laughter erupts from him. But that’s not much of a lifeline of hope to throw your audience.
Any parent or relative who has had to experience the sorrow of watching a child shut themselves off from the world will no doubt be moved by this distressing scenario and by the hard questions it reveals. It’s admirable that Zeller — working with his longtime translator and screenwriting collaborator Christopher Hampton — declines to try analyzing suicidal depression. Instead, he presents it as a private hell that provides no access for the people who love Nicholas.
As with so many children of divorce, Nicholas’ loyalties bounce abruptly in any given moment between his parents, even sometimes doing a persuasive impersonation of being at peace with them both. But he’s never at peace with himself, as much as Peter and Kate try to convince themselves otherwise.
The play on which the film is based is the completion of a trilogy by Zeller about unraveling minds, following The Father, which examined the advancing dementia of an elderly man; and The Mother, about a woman steadily unhinged by middle-aged emptiness.
While Zeller’s psychodramas are serious to a fault, they toy with distorted reality, designed to keep the audience as disoriented as the respective title characters. But in this case, there are too few gray areas in the character study, and McGrath is too green an actor to fool anyone into thinking Nicholas is getting it together. That makes the drama one of grim inevitability, appropriately accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s somber orchestral score.
The always watchable Dern is as unchallenged here as she was in the dismal Jurassic World Dominion earlier this summer, merely called upon to fret and plead. Kirby has more to work with, as Beth becomes torn between her commitments as a new mother and responsibility toward her partner to do what she can for a teenager who is openly hostile toward her. The strain on Beth’s relationship with Peter is played with palpable tension and a welcome brittle edge by Kirby beneath the good intentions.
But this is Jackman’s movie. He makes Peter’s helplessness intensely moving as he keeps trying, against mounting odds and false breakthroughs, to communicate with a child who remains out of reach. Sadly, that goes for The Son, as much as the son.