Florian Zeller’s The Father, released in 2020, attempted to understand an octogenarian man’s dementia from a first-person perspective, allowing the confusing mix of memory and present-tense, of people and places, to become the story. The Son, Zeller’s new movie, was similarly adapted from a work that the filmmaker and playwright crafted for the stage, and is similarly intergenerational and tense. Here, a father is trying to save the memory of his son, in a story that begins when the son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath), is 17 years old and on the verge of being expelled from school after months of skipping. His parents are only too late to find this out. His SATs are coming up and he does not seem keen on preparing for them, which means that he is not as intently focused on his future as a teen on the verge of graduation ought to be. He does not seem to have friends. When he’s asked what’s happening when he skips school, he tells his parents that he’s been going for walks. When he’s asked what’s wrong, he says that life has been weighing him down.
The complexity of The Son, as well as its flaws, are rooted in a fractured double portrait of family life. The fact is that Nicholas’s parents cannot always keep an eye on him because, for one thing, they are divorced, under circumstances that were hard for the younger Nicholas to make sense of, and for another, because his father is overly invested in his professional life, in ways that the movie ties to a broader history. Nicholas’s father, Peter (Hugh Jackman), is an attorney on the verge of taking a big job in politics. His own father (played, in a callback to The Father, by Anthony Hopkins) sacrificed his relationships to his wife and son in pursuit of his career, and so Peter has gone out of his way to do the opposite.
Jackman’s casting is probably the single most effective thing about this movie — because Peter is deluding himself. Something about his can-do spirit, the searching wisdom in his eyes, his confidence in the bright side. Everything that makes Jackman such a worthy man of musical theater is what makes him such an ironic and pained father to a boy like Nicholas. Because his glass-half-full mentality starts to feel less like encouragement than like denial. And because the women in his life — Nicholas’s mother Kate (Laura Dern) and his new wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) — are gently, worriedly trying to coax him into reality throughout the movie. The saddest thing about The Son is that it’s centered on a father who cannot quite see the truth. There’s obviously sadness to Nicholas’s story, too — a despair that sees the boy resort to cutting, hiding a knife under his pillow, and eventually needing to be institutionalized, some of it (we’re led to understand) thanks to something that happened at his old school that he won’t open up about. The Son is not quite as smart in its depiction of Nicholas as it is in its handling of Peter, however. Intergenerational pain is Zeller’s forte, and Peter, as a man stuck between a damaging father and a damaged son, proves the crucial axis for that story.
The good and interesting thing about The Son is that the internal fractures, the sense of double lives, denial, and memory, feel acute in the look and style of the movie. No one watching intently will miss how clearly the movie’s interiors are set on a soundstage, and that shots of Hugh Jackman in his apartment, at the window, have a distinct falseness to them, a theatricality that feels unnatural. The movie is like The Father in that way, willing to play on the idea of the movie set as a stage, and on the dualism of lived reality and theater. The artifice feels central to the point: It’s less about depicting real life and more about the ways Zeller’s characters’ minds conjure false lives, living in their memories or fantasies instead of with their feet firmly on the ground in the present. There’s a thoughtfulness to this, even as this new movie isn’t as playful with the idea as its predecessor.
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But that can’t quite get The Son past the middling dramatic scenes that take up so much of the movie. There are some astonishing moments of cringe, here — a forced bit of joviality, for example, that becomes a slow-mo dance scene with a bland Thom Yorke needle drop, climaxing with a pan over to sad, sad Nicholas’s isolated face. You get why it’s happening — even when together with others, Nicholas is alone; even when his isolation is clear, his father is missing it — but the obviousness whittles the seriousness down into unfortunate near-camp.
There’s no doubt that Zeller takes this subject seriously. But his conceptual skill isn’t matched by his writing of scenes. And the writing for Nicholas is particularly underwhelming. There’s a false idea behind it. The Son is interested in what Nicholas’s father misses, overlooks and denies — but the movie risks doing the same, by giving Nicholas such a threadbare selfhood in the first place. A movie like this feels prime for understanding a boy like Nicholas. But this one barely seems to try. The film is moving. It’s also a bit reductive. The flaw is in the way that one enables the other.