To say Florian Zeller’s The Son isn’t as successful as his 2020 Academy Award winner The Father would be an understatement. While it’s a mediocre family drama, it doesn’t resonate nearly as much as its predecessor did because of how narratively basic and emotionally broad it is.
The Son orbits around the mental health of Nicholas Miller (Zen McGrath), the son of divorced parents Peter (Hugh Jackman) and Kate (Laura Dern). When Kate presents concerns about Nicholas’ poor school attendance and all-around questionable wellbeing to Peter and his partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby), Peter offers to engage more with Nicholas. However, despite moments of levity, there’s resistance between Nicholas and his father that they both find difficult to overcome due to their personal issues. The conflicts, as well as other factors, cause Nicholas to regress until his struggles become a medical danger.
While The Father brilliantly placed the viewer inside the headspace of the feebleminded Anthony (Anthony Hopkins, who appears briefly to reprise his Academy Award winning role), writer/director Zeller keeps his distance from Nicholas and McGrath’s performance and, instead, decides to fall back on a much more linear, traditional manner to tell this story. Unfortunately, this paints a fairly bland picture of what Zeller is trying to achieve as a storyteller, and fashions the themes into a simplistic after-school special. The heavy-handed performances don’t add much to the film either. McGrath doesn’t show restraint as a budding performer, while the more experienced co-stars are given roles that don’t challenge them enough.
Viewers who caught The Son at film festivals and other earlier screenings have reported offensive reactions to the film’s portrayal of mental illness. While the film didn’t offend me, I also don’t feel qualified enough to look at the film from that angle. What I can report is how dull and stilted The Son is. Like The Father, The Son is also based on a play of the filmmaker’s. However, The Father was a perfect example of how theatre can be given a new perspective on a different medium. The Son only provides ammunition for those stage cynics.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie