It’s not easy to be a parent, and one of the most challenging parts of the job is not knowing what a child will be like ahead of time. Kids are to a degree shaped by how their parents raise them, but they are also influenced by other factors and develop personality traits of their own. That can lead to friction, especially if the relationship parents have with each other is strained and there is not one clear approach to how to model or discipline. The Son presents a scenario where a divorced couple struggles to guide their teenage son, whose issues they can’t seem to understand.
Peter (Hugh Jackman) has a stable and comfortable life, one that includes the recent birth of a new baby with his wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby). The balance is disrupted when Peter’s teenage son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath), arrives, sent to his father by his mother Kate (Laura Dern), who is out of ideas for how to help him after learning that he has been skipping school for a full month. Peter welcomes the opportunity to spend time with a son he hasn’t seen all that regularly since he left Kate, and he believes that whatever is ailing Nicholas will dissipate once he spends time with his baby brother and in a new environment with his father nearby, unaware of just how serious his depression is.
The Son is director Florian Zeller’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Father, also adapted by Christopher Hampton from Zeller’s play. Though they are linked thematically and by title, as well as being part of a trilogy, they are radically different films. While Zeller’s previous project tracked one man grasping at memories within his own apartment, this film boasts an ensemble cast and supporting characters, all sure of who they are even if that still involves working out their relationship to everyone else. The structures of the two are not at all alike, and The Son doesn’t involve a readily apparent cinematic approach that separates it from its stage format, with the dialogue and blocking seeming much more suited for a live audience.
The title is also an interesting facet of this film since Peter gets considerably more screen time than Nicholas and serves as the focal point of the film. He also shares one memorable scene with his own father, played by Anthony Hopkins, who won an Oscar for his last onscreen turn as a father directed by Zeller. While that standout interaction does feature conversation about how Peter believes his own upbringing has shaped how he acts as a father, it’s not referenced otherwise in the film, with emphasis put instead on how Peter trying to help Nicholas means that he’s neglecting his other child and the wife who didn’t have any say in the sudden arrival of an easily rattled teenager in her home.
Jackman has played a version of this character before, a charmer who projects self-confidence yet has little idea how to act in and deal with a crisis. Both Dern and Kirby have had more substantial roles that make use of their talents in the past, while Hopkins reliably chews scenery in his brief appearance. McGrath delivers a committed performance, but one that is indicative of the overarching flaw of this film. While it is surely meant to be reflective of people who are just not equipped to deal with their circumstances, no matter how self-assured they may be, it feels all too staged and lacks a genuine quality. The story being told is an important and resonant one, but the manner in which it plays out doesn’t effectively drive it home.
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Following its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Son will be released in NY and LA on November 11th.