When he made his directorial debut with “The Father” last year, French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller proved to be uncommonly adept at using the tools of cinema to depict an elderly man’s descent into dementia. But Zeller was far from finished exploring the subject of mental illness, which he tackles from a very different perspective in his new film, “The Son.”
While “The Father” was entirely from the point-of-view of Anthony Hopkins’ title character, “The Son,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday, is a film of shifting perspectives. The young Australian actor Zen McGrath offers an indelible performance as Nicholas, a high schooler wracked with depression after the stormy divorce of his parents – but we spend as much time with the adults who are trying desperately to figure out what they did wrong and how they can save Nicholas: Hugh Jackman as Nicholas’ high-powered lawyer father, Peter; Laura Dern as his distraught mother, Kate; and Vanessa Kirby as Beth, the young mother for whom Peter left Kate.
“The Father” had a heartbreaking elegance in the way it got inside the main character’s head, but “The Son” is both colder and hotter than that film, following the mood swings of a teen in pain. It finds Zeller (with the help of his remarkable cast) going bigger, bolder and perhaps less focused, but remaining sensitive and attuned to the intricacies of putting mental illness onscreen.
The son doesn’t make an appearance in “The Son” until we’ve already met the parents. Peter comes home to Beth, who’s struggling with the pressures of a new baby, and a frantic Kate shows up at their door to say their 17-year-old son hasn’t been to school in a month and has been harming himself. “He needs you, Peter,” she pleads. “You can’t just abandon him.”
Peter confronts Nicholas, who’s reluctant to explain anything to his father until he finally stumbles his way through a confession of sorts: “I can’t do any of it…. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s life. It’s wearing me down.”
For the rest of the film, Nicholas bounces between his father’s house, which scares Beth and puts a strain on that relationship, and his mother’s place, where Kate lives in perpetual fear of what her son might do.
As he did in “The Father,” which took place in an apartment that subtly and continually changed to reflect the central character’s state of mind, Zeller pays particular attention to the environments in which his characters live and work. We find Peter in a sleek train compartment between New York and Washington, D.C., Kate in a woodsy office, Nicholas in stifling classrooms, Beth in a gleaming modern apartment that may not be the best place for a new baby or a troubled teen. The spaces don’t have to do the heavy lifting of the sets in Zeller’s last film, but each is impeccably drawn by production designer Simon Bowles, and they quickly sketch the distances in these relationships.
Nobody here is untouched by pain or by guilt. Kate lives in a world of bottomless regret and hurt, blaming herself for Nicholas’ depression. Peter knows he may have set things in motion when he left his wife for another woman, but he’s determined to remain in control. So he embraces enough self-delusion to convince himself that Nicholas is getting better and things will be OK. Beth has her own life and a child that must take priority, but she can’t escape the reminder that the prelude to her own new family was the destruction of her husband’s old family.
Dern, Jackman and Kirby navigate the shifts from heartbreak to anger to bewilderment, and manage to keep the film grounded even as it gets increasingly fraught. And then Anthony Hopkins, who won an Oscar for “The Father,” shows up as Peter’s cold and emotionally brutal father for a single, devastating scene in the middle of the film and casts a shadow over everything else that happens.
As in “The Father,” there’s an austerity and a rigor to “The Son,” but there’s also more desperation and, at times, more exuberance in the exploration of adolescent depression. In a rare moment of joy, Peter, Beth and Nicholas dance wildly to Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” – but rather than staying at that fever pitch, the music morphs slowly into a moody lament (“Wolf” by Awir Leon) whose pained falsetto brings out the deep hurt beneath the exuberance.
“The Son” is a serious look at depression and mental illness that holds out the possibility of healing but makes it clear how difficult that healing can be; cinematographer Ben Smithard shoots it in a way in which the simplest of scenes, from a mother-son hug to a closeup of a washing machine, come to be imbued with a sense of dread and foreboding.
As the film goes on, it’s also hard not to think of a certain dramatic principle associated with an earlier dramatist, Chehkov, though we won’t go into any details there. Suffice it to say that Zeller engages in some cinematic misdirection here, but it’s considerably more obvious than it was in his last film.
Where “The Father” was subtle and twisty, this drama is more agitated and restless, even melodramatic at times – but that’s a directorial decision that certainly fits the dark and troubling subject that the film explores but doesn’t exploit.
“The Son” will be released theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics on Nov. 11.