Peter (Hugh Jackman) is experiencing the prime of his life: he and his wife just had a baby, and with meetings in Washington, DC, his career as a hotshot lawyer is taking off into political spheres. This idyll is threatened, when Nicholas – Peter’s teenage son from a previous marriage – shows signs of depression, and he and his mother (Laura Dern) agree it might be best for him to come live with his father for a change.
Florian Zeller’s directorial debut The Father enthralled critics and audiences alike, as the chamber piece managed to create a palpable understanding of what dementia feels like for a person affected by it. In The Son, the playwright-turned-filmmaker tackles the equally weighty subject of teenage depression but, to the film’s detriment, chooses to tell the story entirely from the father’s point of view. As such, all empathy lies with Peter and his frustration at not being able to get through to his son. While the viewer might be more omniscient than the characters in grasping that mental illness cannot be rationalised, the script keeps up the “why won’t you just get better?” narrative rather than offering any insight into Nicholas’s struggle. To those suffering from mental illness, it can come as a slap in the face to see themselves portrayed as a mere burden weighing down their family.
Like The Father, the follow-up is adapted from Zeller’s own play and again, the action is largely confined to a home, but here, it is not operating under the same dramaturgic necessity. The feature’s dialogue feels stilted and gives its cast little material to flesh out their characters – Peter being the notable exception.
It is possible that the vacant expression in Zen McGrath’s eyes is a purposeful acting choice – after all, apathy is a prevalent symptom of depression – but next to Jackman’s emotional tour de force it feels like watching a game of solo squash when it should have the to and fro dynamics of a tennis match instead.
It is disappointing to see the collaboration of such capable minds amount to nothing more in-depth than a 1990s made-for-television movie.
The Son does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch the trailer for The Son here: