‘The Son’ Movie Review: Florian Zeller’s Drama Indeed Falls Far From the Tree of ‘The Father’

Florian Zeller’s 2020 drama The Father is a poignant tsunami that consumes all in its path. The Son acts as a follow-up and companion piece, but it falls short of its predecessor. The film’s core concept wrestles with its undeniably tough subject matter in various ways, but it pins its emotional crescendo to a manipulative center that lacks sincerity.

'The Son' 2.0 star graphic

‘The Son’ finds a broken family trying to piece their lives back together

‘The Son’ Zen McGrath as Nicholas Miller, Laura Dern as Kate, and Hugh Jackman as Peter. McGrath and Dern are sitting on the couch, while Jackman is standing behind the couch. They're all smiling.
L-R: Zen McGrath as Nicholas Miller, Laura Dern as Kate, and Hugh Jackman as Peter | Sony Pictures Classics

Peter (Hugh Jackman) is a busy working professional with a demanding career with the potential for new opportunities that he’s worked hard for over the years. He juggles these duties with his personal life with his new partner, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and their newborn baby. However, their seemingly controlled lives are thrown into chaos when Peter’s ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern), asks him to help with their increasingly difficult teenage son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath).

The adolescent and Kate grapple with their attempts to connect, but they ultimately get nowhere. As a result, Nicholas moves in with Peter and Beth, but his troubles continue to boil under the surface of a thin veil of normalcy. Past trauma looms over every aspect of the young man’s life, as he reflects on how his family disintegrated.

The cycle of fatherhood

Screenwriters Zeller and Christopher Hampton weave multiple complicated character dynamics throughout The Son, which is based on Zeller’s play by the same name. Nicholas’ depression is the catalyst forcing him to confront his turmoil with Peter, Beth, and Kate, but no one is able to properly communicate their feelings with one another. Zeller and Hampton progressively tease the history of these relationships, evermore presenting the reasoning for why they’ve ended up where they have.

The adults’ inability to express their own insecurities and doubts comes to an alarming realization through Nicholas’ depression. He feels deeply and yearns to connect, but is utterly deprived of the capability to communicate or understand his own experiences with mental illness. It’s an undeniably frustrating display that continues to escalate. Nicholas remains the consistent topic of discussion, but the adults’ lack of control of the world around them is no less important here.

Given the title of The Son, it’s no surprise that there is a clear focus on the relationship between parents and sons. However, it narrows down further to fathers’ connection with their sons. Peter has his own open wounds from his own father, but the full extent of his family life isn’t entirely shown. Rather, they reflect in how Peter approaches Nicholas, perpetuating an outwardly never-ending cycle of neglect and harm. There’s a theme of how running from one’s problems only brings about their greatest fears and insecurities, blowing up into a catastrophic ripple effect.

‘The Son’ is a shrewd drama without bite

‘The Son’ Hugh Jackman as Peter looking down with a sad look on his face. He's resting his hand on the back of his neck.
Hugh Jackman as Peter | Sony Pictures Classics
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Zeller implemented a visually dizzying experience in The Father that marvelously played into his storytelling. Meanwhile, he captures The Son from a much more straightforward lens. The story is grounded in Peter’s perspective, choosing a father’s oblivious point-of-view over Nicholas’, telling the story of a man caught between the horrors that come with being a son and a father. The direction often feels like a stage play, not entirely finding a way to utilize the film medium to tell its narrative differently.

Nevertheless, Zeller still draws out impressive performances from the majority of the cast. Jackman digs deep, mostly succeeding in the film’s quiet moments of sorrow. Some of his big moments tread into over-acting that lacks the sincerity of the more introspective scenes. Meanwhile, Dern is entirely empathetic, elevating Kate from what’s written on the page into the film’s most stirring character. Similarly, Kirby is exquisite as Beth, offering layers that peek into a world outside of the original family triad. McGrath works with a less likable character in Nicholas, but he’s the notable weak link among powerhouses.

The Son has a compelling statement to make on the connection between love and depression, but it fizzles into a fatiguingly disingenuous affair. Zeller sidelines the film’s most enthralling pieces of the puzzle, which are the women in Peter and Nicholas’ lives, as well as Peter’s father. What we’re left with is a histrionic narrative that isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.

The Son comes to theaters in Los Angeles and New York on Nov. 25 and expands on Dec. 16.

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