"The Son" TIFF Review
Esteemed playwright Florian Zeller returns to the silver screen with his sophomore feature after the Oscar-winning success of The Father. An adaptation of his French stage play, The Son, sees Zeller return to the familiar ground of mental health and family anguish, only this time it centers on a depressed teenage boy instead of an elderly man with looming Alzheimer’s. And instead of dealing with this sensitive issue with poise and ingenuity, Zeller rubs our faces in it while screaming “THIS IS IMPORTANT!” for two ungodly hours.
Hugh Jackman stars as Peter, a middle-aged father who seems to be reaching his peak. He and his second wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), have just welcomed their new child, and are living in an upscale apartment in New York City. Peter is also a budding prospect to manage a major new political campaign, one that may take him to the next level.
Knocking on Peter’s door one night is his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern), who explains that their son, seventeen-year-old Nicholas (Zen McGrath), hasn’t been to school in over a month. Kate can’t seem to reach him on an emotional level, so she pleads with Peter to have Nicholas move in with him. Being the dutiful father, Peter agrees in the hopes that a change of scenery will snap Nicholas out of whatever funk he’s in.
The actors are not well served here, with screenwriters Zeller and Christopher Hampton opting for an emotional sledgehammer rather than the precise scalpel they used for The Father. Zeller stressed beforehand to the press that teenage mental health issues are an ever-complicated topic that can’t be easily explained. Although it may be true, that’s an odd statement because the film itself does the exact opposite. The reasoning behind Nicholas’ depression comes across as superficial and shallow, with his parent’s recent divorce being the culprit. There is no gray area for introspection, which McGrath’s one-note performance does no favors in exploring. There’s also a literal Checkov’s gun moment, deflating any suspense on how the movie will end, which is wretchedly executed.
Both Kirby and Dern get little to do besides sitting around talking about how worried they are about Nicholas. Kirby does well with what she’s given, offering an outsider’s opinion on Nicholas’ state and imploring Peter to not let himself get sucked down the rabbit hole.
Jackman and Anthony Hopkins, who appears in a cameo as Peter’s unloving father, are the only actors to make it out of this mess unscathed. Jackman’s performance runs the whole emotional gamut. He runs laps around McGrath during the moments of emotional outburst, and finely handles the subtle moments with Kirby.
Hans Zimmer’s orchestral score, guaranteed to become one of his most underrated pieces of work, does much of the heavy lifting. And Simon Bowle’s production design, complete with sleek interiors and harsh exteriors, traps the characters within the ungodly situation they find themselves in.
There’s a scene midway through The Son that exemplifies my experience watching the film. Peter and Beth are having a bonding moment as they recreate the dance routine they did when they first met each other at a party years ago. Nicholas walks in on them, and can’t help but join in on the fun. The three dance goofily, enjoying each other’s company for the first time in forever. After a while, the camera begins to swirl, losing sight of Nicholas as it focuses on the married couple. It then pans to the left, hard needle dropping to the most clichéd emo song imaginable as Nicholas expressionlessly stares directly into the camera. All the goodwill built up to that moment is immediately lost forever, and all I’m left with is an infuriatingly preachy film that possibly does more harm than good.