Movie Review: Florian Zeller’s ‘The Son’ Doesn’t Reach The Lofty Heights Of ‘The Father’

“The Son” is not an easy watch.

That’s not the problem.

The second film directed by writer Florian Zeller is, like the first, incredibly effective and moving of 2020.The father” — adapted from one of his own works and co-written with Christopher Hampton (“Atonement”). (They are part of a trilogy of works dealing with mental health, the other being “The Mother,” which has yet to be adapted for the screen.)

While “The Father” deals with dementia, “The Son” tackles the equally difficult subject of depression. And it tells a much more direct story. With one exception, there are no scenes where you will question the reality that Zeller presents to you.

While Hugh Jackman, as successful big-city executive Peter Miller, gets top spots in “The Son,” what impresses most is the performance of little-known Zen McGrath as Nicolas Miller, the film’s 17-year-old lead. . The character is fighting, virtually indescribably, to be alive, and it hits hard.

Unfortunately, however, the contrived nature of the film’s climactic stretch takes away from much of the more subtle work that precedes it. It’s a bit of half-baked storytelling, consisting of a situation that rings a little true and feels primarily designed to bring the viewer quickly to a resolution that feels almost inescapable.

“The Son” opens with some blurry, idyllic images of a mother and baby. However, this is not a young Nicholas and his mother, but Peter’s new wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and his newborn from her.

The happy new chapter of Peter’s life is interrupted by a visit from his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern), with the news that Nicholas hasn’t been to school in months. This came as a shock to her, as he would leave the house every morning with a school bag.

However, she admits that her son’s behavior has been worrying.

“He just looked at me with so much hate,” she says, recounting a recent interaction with Nicolás. “I thought she was going to…”

“What?” Peter asks.

“It scares me,” she replies. “OKAY?”

Although not very forthcoming, Nicolás asks his father if he can move in with him, saying that he knows his mother can’t handle him anymore and that he wants to spend time with his little brother. When Peter brings the idea to Beth, she has serious reservations but gives her approval, and Nicholas soon moves into a back room and begins attending a nearby high school.

It isn’t long before Nicholas displays more problematic behavior, including confronting Beth about the nature of her crush on her then-married father. Furthermore, he discovers that Nicholas has hidden a small kitchen knife under his mattress, and the teen later admits to Peter that the scars on his arm represent his attempts to redirect the pain he is feeling.

They are heartbreaking things, and are handled with care and finesse, for the most part. Peter wants to do everything he can to help Nicolas, from spending time with him and trying to get him to open up about what he’s feeling to taking him to see a professional who might be more successful in that area.

Of course, with all the time and energy he already spends at work, the amount of himself he’s now giving to Nicholas is putting a strain on their marriage, despite Beth’s best efforts to understand the plight.

The film’s first big misstep comes when Peter decides to visit his own father, an ever-ambitious creature from Washington, DC, who apparently has no regrets about being a lousy father. The one-note scene is especially disappointing given that Anthony Miller is played by Anthony Hopkins, who won the 2021 Academy Award for best actor for his outstanding work in “The Father.” Hopkins elevates the scene as only he can but also just a little.

Meanwhile, Jackman, who asked Zeller if he could play the part of Peter after seeing “The Father,” is solid. Unfortunately, many parents of troubled teens will identify with the emotions he conveys as Peter. There’s nothing that takes performance to the next level, but the veteran of the “X-Men” movies is effective.

We wish Beth’s role was a bit more expansive given the talent Kirby has displayed in “The Crown” and especially the 2020 movie “Pieces of a Woman.” That said, she is an asset to “The Son.”

Dern’s work (“Jurassic World Dominion”), on the other hand, is a mixed bag. The veteran actress disappoints in a couple of scenes but shines in a couple of Kate’s more vulnerable moments.

And then there’s McGrath, an Australian native with limited credits. That Nicholas can be so frustrating to caring adults, that you feel how challenging it would be to actually help him, is to the credit of both the actor and the writers.

Ultimately, though, it’s hard to recommend “The Son,” even if it’s easy to see that it’s an ambitious attempt to examine a very complex subject.

‘The son’

2 stars (out of 4)

Classified: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving suicide and strong language)

Execution time: 2:03

How to watch: In theaters Friday, January 20.

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