French writer/director Florian Zeller’s 2020 film The Father was an audacious, remarkable representation of life from the perspective of a man (a rightly Oscar-winning Anthony Hopkins) living with dementia. It was harrowing and gripping, yet empathetic and tactful, never losing grasp of the complex psychological sorrow at the heart of its main character. It was a movie that felt genuinely insightful about a subject that could be touchy to get right.
Zeller’s new film, The Son, made me believe that The Father must have been some kind of accidental miracle. It retains the mental illness theme, this time tackling depression, but turns in what has to be one of the most ill-advised, manipulative, offensive depictions of the disorder that I’ve ever seen. All that ostensible awareness and smart discernment of his previous film are missing completely, replaced by a cartoonishly idiotic representation of a cliche troubled teen. To think it came from the same creative mind is almost beyond belief.
Based on Zeller’s own 2018 stage play and rewritten for the screen with Christopher Hampton, the film functions as either a spiritual sequel, or potentially a prequel, to The Father. It’s possible that Anthony Hopkins’ more lucid performance in this could be the same character, but the idea is left somewhat vague. For all intents and purposes, this is a stand-alone story about Peter Miller (Jackman), a well-to-do lawyer who works in his skyscraper office and lives with his girlfriend Beth (Kirby) and their new child. All is copacetic until Peter’s son, Nicholas (McGrath), with his ex-wife, Kate (Dern), wants to come live with him due to emotional problems he’s been feeling at home – problems which have resulted in him skipping school every day for up to a month. Against the wishes of a reluctant Beth, Peter agrees and soon life between the three of them turns into a caustic affair of emotional melodrama, all due to Peter being unable to truly understand his son’s disorder.
Whereas The Father told its story from the perspective of the suffering character, The Son instead opts to tell the story from the father of the one struggling – essentially turning this into a story about the emotional toll of being there for your teenage kid. There’s an argument to be made for the validity of a film about the overpowering commitment of being a parent, and the looming fear of failing when your child needs you most. Yet the domestic drama of this film is so crudely realized that its depiction of depression ends up as something completely juvenile. Every line of dialogue is ham-fisted and awkward, and because there’s no real interiority to Nicholas, he comes off as a vacuous caricature. The lack of real understanding about him or his disorder seems to potentially be the point, but that doesn’t work when he’s used to portray mental illness so carelessly. This is like what your Republican grandma thinks a depressed kid is.
Moreover, though I don’t enjoy harping on the performances of younger actors, McGrath is awful. He defines this character entirely through mopey whining and pouting, and it is painful to watch. To McGrath's credit, the hackneyed, strained writing ensures that none of the veterans here are able to sell their roles much better, save for Hopkins, who shows up in an all-too-brief single scene slightly disconnected from the rest of the film. Jackman and Dern are trying their best and it’s impossible to deny their innate talent, while Kirby is serviceable in a role so one-note that she’s basically rendered an afterthought.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, The Son ultimately just feels like it’s depicting misery for the sake of misery. There are no astute or emotionally resonating takeaways to be had about the pain of depression, just stock melodrama with a cautionary-tale climax that feels desperate to shock. It’s not often I watch a movie that feels downright irresponsible, but The Son has claimed that rare honor. Congratulations.
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