Following the success of The Father, French stage director and playwright-turned-film director Florian Zeller adapts for the screen the last part of his trilogy: The Son.
On paper, it seems like the perfect melodrama to come after the critically acclaimed The Father, which got Anthony Hopkins his second Oscar. Sadly, The Son is Zeller’s sophomore slump.
As Zeller introduces the film during its North American premiere, he talks about the film’s exploration of mental illness and how it’s essential to have a conversation about it. They represent mental illness on screen authentically. Yet, the characters around the titular son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath), respond to his acute depression irrationally.
Peter (Hugh Jackman) and his new wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) are busy with the birth of their son. Meanwhile, Peter’s ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) couldn’t handle Nicholas anymore. He has been skipping school and wandering around New York City to pass the time. Kate and Peter agree that Nicholas is better off if he stays with his father. Peter is too busy with his work at a law firm, and Beth doesn’t know how to connect with her stepson.
At first, Nicholas reacts to this change positively. He happily attends his new school. As soon as he settles in the classroom, however, the camera pushes in, and his face conveys massive heaviness. Nicholas withdraws from the world again.
The Son portrays depression accurately; it would have been nearly perfect if not for Nicholas’ repetitive, long-winded monologues about how he cannot fully explain what happens inside his head, the reactions of the people around him, and the emotionally manipulative ending that soured the whole film.
The framing of depression onscreen is truthful, coming from someone who suffered from it. There is this feeling of not being able to fully explain to the people you love why you feel the way you feel. Depression eats up inside you and it’s just there, with no logical explanation. And yet, Peter tries to use logic to figure out his son and solve his problems. Maybe it’s the depiction of a parent who tries their hardest and fails, but the character does this multiple times to the extent that he isn’t listening to his son anymore. It gets very frustrating.
Additionally, the way Nicholas is perceived by his mom and step-mom as a “monster” is an over-exaggeration. It is a disservice to those who suffer from mental illnesses. Eventually, the ending just puts the final nail in the coffin in this attempt to bring mental illness to the conversation through cinema. It’s lazy writing.
Despite the script’s weakness, performances still shone through. Hugh Jackman portrayed the conflicted Peter with grace, and he had moments to show the complexities of a father trying to understand his child. Lead Zen McGrath had to carry a lot of emotional burdens to play a character like Nicholas, so you got to give props where it’s due. However, his performance can get a little repetitive and over-acted. Vanessa Kirby delivered yet another remarkable performance with Beth; despite being given very little, she captures the conflicts of trying to connect with her stepson and being a wife to Peter.
But at the end of the day, The Son is an example of how not to depict mental illness in film. It is downright bad. Not even an Anthony Hopkins appearance could fix it.