There’s a scene in Florian Zeller’s “The Son” where Peter (Hugh Jackman) goes to visit his father, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins). Over lunch, Peter tells his father he’s been going through a tough time with his own teenage son. So tough, in fact, he’s considering giving up a chance at his dream job in order to be home more often.
This comment prompts a less than fatherly response from Anthony.
“Still trying to show me what a model dad you are?” Hopkins delivers this line with calm, calculated derision, chastising Peter as if he were still 17. Anthony believes Peter only visited him to prove what a good father he is. The type of father who can give up his worldly ambitions to be there for his son – something Anthony never could, and seemingly never wanted to do, if the upper class opulence that surrounds him is any indication.
Peter initially scoffs at this observation, but Jackman’s performance betrays a sadness that undercuts his confidence. Anthony is cruel, but he’s not wrong. Peter’s desire to distance himself from his father is buoyed by the fact that he fears he might be turning into him. At the beginning of the film, we learn he has divorced his first wife, left her and their son, found a new partner, and had a new child. He is wracked with guilt.
Hopkins is nothing less than a shark in this scene, his only scene in the film. His delivery is frank, undercut with arrogance and disdain for what he perceives as weakness. Unfortunately for “The Son,” this is also the only moment that delivers on any emotional tension, that cuts through the film’s remarkably inadequate dialogue to arrive at any point of note. The rest of the film stumbles awkwardly through its story, which rests on the shoulders of a young actor who is given the daunting task of finding nuance where none exists.
“The Son” serves as a prequel to Zeller’s 2020 film “The Father,” which stars Hopkins as the same character a few years later as he struggles with dementia. The film opens on Peter fondly watching his partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby) with their newborn son. But a knock on the door interrupts their bliss – it’s Kate (Laura Dern), Peter’s ex-wife. She’s worried about their 17-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath). He’s been skipping school for almost a month, and he won’t tell her what’s wrong. She begs Peter to speak to him, which prompts Nicholas to ask if he can come live with Peter and Beth instead of his mother. It quickly becomes apparent that this change of setting is not enough – Nicholas is struggling with depression, and Peter is increasingly incapable of dealing with it.
Like “The Father,” “The Son” zeroes on a singular character’s state of mind – in this case, Nicholas – and how that influences his view of the world and how the people around him respond in kind. But while “The Father” puts the audience in Hopkins’s state of mind, warping your perception of reality and creating empathy, “The Son” keeps us at a distance from Nicholas, positioning him as other in the process.
Nicholas often speaks of himself in othered terms, as if he’s the only teenager who has ever felt isolated from his peers or like he didn’t have a place in the world. His parents, who have seemingly never heard of such a thing as depression, also view him as an outlier, as does the film. There are numerous scenes that show Nicholas disassociating, staring off into space or something right into camera as sinister strings vibrate underneath the moment. In one particular sequence that cuts back and forth between Nicholas, Kate, and Peter in different locations, Kate and Peter both appear to react to a dissociative moment from Nicholas. Both of them, Kate in particular, seem unnerved by the experience. These moments are meant to unsettle us – to make us feel uneasy in the face of Nicholas’s mental health, as the others around him apparently do.
That is not to say that someone struggling with depression, particularly a young person, might feel as though they are the only person in the world to have ever felt this way. Mental illness has the power to make us feel more alone than ever, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Nicholas might view himself as a pariah, afraid of what’s going on in his head and unable to properly articulate his feelings. The issue, however, is that while these insecurities may be very real to Nicholas, the film positions them as fact in the world at large in the most superficial way possible.
The idea of cyclical parenthood is the most interesting thread in “The Son,” stemming from Hopkins’s performance and arising in a brutal, but honest way from Nicholas, who has no problem poking at Peter’s insecurities about how his own father has influenced his parenting. But when that tension finally comes to a head between Peter and Nicholas, the screenplay (written by Zeller and Christopher Hampton) holds the audience’s hand through every beat, with cringey, overly-simplistic dialogue leading the charge.
The dialogue is not only shallow, but seems intent on drawing Nicholas as a kid whose problems are too deep to manage. McGrath is regularly tasked with saying things like, “I’m not made like other people,” a statement the movie gets behind and never questions. These statements feel strained and awkward coming from McGrath, but he should not be held solely accountable – how is one meant to fully capture a character the film paints with such broad strokes? Peter and Kate regularly discuss their very much alive, very much struggling child as though he were already dead. “When are you going to face up to the fact that he’s not right in the head,” Beth says to Peter during a particularly ugly argument. The adults in the film seem positively flummoxed by the idea of a teen mental illness, a decision that feels poised to unmoor the audience, to make us feel as lost as the characters on screen. But sadly, and however well-intentioned, “The Son” operates from a place of manipulation and not understanding. It’s one-dimension cruelty masked with a veneer of sympathy.