From Sophocles to Shakespeare, it all comes back to family. Writers can get as high-concept as they like, but in the end, the world’s greatest storytellers recognize that nothing is more potent — not even romantic love — than the connections between children and their parents. Florian Zeller gets it. Before turning his attention to the screen, the gifted French scribe wrote at least a dozen plays, the most acclaimed of which were a trilogy focusing on how mental health issues devastate seemingly functional bourgeois families: “The Mother” (depression), “The Father” (dementia) and “The Son” (you’ll see).
Onstage, his strategy has been to keep things simple, honest and as universal as possible. In 2020, he directed Anthony Hopkins (and himself) to an Oscar with “The Father.” And now, with so many watching to see what he’ll do next, Zeller adapts his most personal play, “The Son,” about a troubled New York teenager no one seems to understand, least of all himself. “I’m not made like other people,” insists 17-year-old Nicholas (remarkable newcomer Zen McGrath, who goes head-to-head with Hugh Jackman here). “I’m in pain. All. The. Time.”
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It’s a cry for help in a film where people desperately want to do the right thing, but no one seems to know what that is — or what Nicholas is capable of. That uncertainty gives “The Son” its tension: a low, subconscious dread that something terrible is going to happen, as if tragedy were inevitable, but you can’t quite be sure what form it will take. “He scares me,” Nicholas’ mother, Kate (Laura Dern, letting the character’s neediness be known), tells big-shot ex-husband Peter (Jackman) in a tone that suggests she’s admitting it for the first time. Kate has shown up at Peter’s place — a posh apartment the power lawyer shares with new wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and their newborn baby — at an inappropriately late hour looking for help.
Nicholas has been skipping school for nearly a month. Something is wrong, but the boy refuses to confide in Kate. Maybe Peter can reason with him, she hopes. The next day, Peter drops by, tough but concerned, and tries to pep-talk the kid out of what parents optimistically call a “phase,” but which, in fact, they may never grow out of. Peter wants his son to feel respected. In the man-to-almost-man conversation that follows, Nicholas winds up asking whether he can live with his dad, which sets the rest of “The Son” in motion.
Instead of feeling loose and lived in, Zeller’s adaptation of his own play has a slightly heightened quality, not to be confused with “theatrical”: The sets feel disconcertingly under-decorated, as if the characters were living in an Ikea showroom. The sound design has been dialed down, such that sirens and street noise (a New York near-constant) barely register. The dialogue, adapted into English with Christopher Hampton’s help, suggests what people might say in such a situation. These very concerns have fueled countless TV movies, and yet, Zeller is going for the most “tasteful” possible treatment. Instead of merely wrenching us emotionally — which “The Son” will inevitably succeed in doing anyway — he wants to get audiences thinking.
Study the dynamic between father and son carefully, and you’ll spot a fascinating trick at work, even subtler than the sleight of hand Zeller used to make audiences feel as if they were slowly losing their minds (like Hopkins’ character) in “The Father”: In the role of Peter, Jackman becomes a man caught up in his own kind of performance. The seldom-home workaholic desperately wants to be perceived as an ideal patriarch but seems to know (or suspect) deep down that he’s a failure in that department. That means Jackman is essentially playing a man playing a dad.
If you doubt this reading, consider one of the film’s defining scenes, when Peter takes a rare break from work to see his own dad (Anthony Hopkins as Anthony, a different father from “The Father”) to let him know he’s thinking of turning down a D.C. politician’s offer to oversee his campaign, since Nicholas needs him. It seems to Peter like the right call, but Anthony sees right through his agenda. “Your daddy wasn’t nice to you. So what?” he spits. “Just fucking get over it!”
And therein emerges another dimension of Jackman’s character, who hails from a generation in which shutting one’s mouth and enduring the pain is seen as a sign of personal strength. Today, emotional maturity is associated with the opposite qualities: the capacity to identify one’s trauma and accept treatment, as Nicholas tries to do. To his credit, when not too distracted with work, Peter does try to communicate with his son. It’s through one of these conversations that Peter learns that the boy is deeply traumatized by his parents’ split. This revelation isn’t offered as an “explanation” so much as a clue. Nicholas clearly feels betrayed and abandoned by his father. Life, he says, is “weighing me down.”
For Nicholas’ parents, as well as any fathers and mothers in the audience, it’s upsetting to see someone so young overwhelmed by the world around him — a state of mind McGrath plays more subtly than Laurie Kynaston did in the West End stage version, where the character scribbled on walls and upended furniture in agitation. Not this Nicholas. He’s largely a cipher, stashing a weapon under his mattress and showing an unsettling interest in his infant stepbrother (whom he sees as a replacement of sorts). This is no easy role, since the slightest bit of menace would likely sabotage the sensitivity of Zeller’s portrayal.
“The Son” isn’t an easy watch, but it’s an important one at a time when young people are very much in crisis. Just look at the statistics, and it’s clear that depression, self-harm and suicide are up in alarming rates among teenagers — and that’s even before you factor in the challenges of the pandemic. When Nicholas asks his father about the rifle he noticed in the laundry room, it’s not clear whether this disgruntled teen plans to use it on his classmates or himself. Ask Chekhov how you ought to feel for the rest of the film.
Beth is frightened, but tries her best to be a caring stepmother, as in an atypically light scene when she pressures Peter to demonstrate his “famous hip sway.” Out comes a glimpse of the goofball behind Hugh Jackman’s star persona. Between this and “Bad Education,” we’re seeing a new chapter of his career, as Jackman subsumes his natural charisma in order to suggest Peter’s fundamental insecurity: He wants to break the cycle, to be a better dad than the one he had. But he doesn’t understand what he’s up against, and in watching “The Son” play out, this family’s tragedy becomes our own, and Zeller’s warning becomes impossible to ignore.
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