Daddy Issues: “The Son” movie review

Hugh Jackman stars in heart-wrenching family drama

The Son
Starring Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern & Vanessa Kirby
Directed by Florian Zeller
Rated PG-13

See it: In select theaters Dec. 16, 2022

French director Florian Zeller’s previous film, The Father, inventively took viewers into a disorienting world of an older man’s dementia. Now The Son plunges audiences into a drama about a teenager’s descent into the darkness of depression, and his exasperated father’s earnest efforts to reach and rescue him.

Hugh Jackman plays Peter, a super-busy New York City corporate lawyer with his steady eye on a plum spot as a political consultant in Washington. He’s thrown off-course, however, when his teenage son, Nicholas (newcomer Zen McGrath), comes to live with him and his partner, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and their new baby boy.  Laura Dern plays Nicholas’ mom, Kate—Peter’s ex—who realizes something’s unsettled with their child. “He’s not well,” Kate says. “He scares me.”

Peter can’t understand why Nicholas is skipping school, why he doesn’t seem to have any interest in anything, why he’s let all his friendships go and why he says life is weighing him down. Why does he say his head is about to explode? Why are there cuts up and down his arms, and a knife under his mattress? Why is he so listless, so numb to everything, so zoned out? For Peter, there must be a reason, an explanation, a cause and effect. After all, Pete’s an upper-level exec who sees things as situations that need to be turned around, from loss to profit, red to black, lose to win. He’s blind to the signs that his son is suffering from something more serious, and far more complicated, than ordinary teen angst—something that can’t be amended by Peter sternly telling Nicholas his perplexing behavior is forbidden.

Nicholas’ parents are slow to realize their son is drowning in depression. And when they do, well, things just get worse, and more fraught with raw emotion, from there.

This gut-punch slice-of-life tale reinforces its central father-son characters with a couple of highly symbolic objects. For Peter, it’s the sleek elevator in his office building, a clean, efficiently vertical channel that you’re either riding up, or you’re going down; that’s how his legal-eagle world operates. Nicholas is represented by the sloppy, choppy churn of a washing machine—his mind is a swirling, topsy-turvy tumble of a mess, with everything constantly twisting and collapsing on itself, round and round, wadded up and going in circles, but also going nowhere.

Anthony Hopkins

Anthony Hopkins, who won as Oscar (his second) for his formidable, foundational role in Zeller’s The Father, reappears for one scene here, loosely connecting the two films. (Both The Father and The Son were originally written for the stage by the director.) Hopkins plays Peter’s father, a cold and aloof Washington political lion who doesn’t have any patience for reflection, soul-searching, indecision, mistakes…or Peter’s struggles with Nicholas, and his out-of-control life. “Just f__king get over it, for God’s sake,” Peter’s pop snaps at him, the equivalent of a resounding slap across the dinner table.

There’s certainly a slap of seriousness in this family drama about a family in crisis and a son’s desperate cry for help, and how fathers don’t necessarily have all the answers nor always do the right thing.  (“Sometimes love isn’t enough,” a psychiatric doc tells Peter.) How guilty should Peter feel? After all, Nicholas blames him for leaving his mother, and for causing his maladjustment in the world.

But it’s by no means an easy, comfortable, entertaining watch, and when it reaches its heavy-handed climax, it’s shocking, but hardly surprising. The talented cast struggles against the shortcomings of the gloomy, manipulative script, and an ever-downward spiral that eventually strands them on a teary, heart-wrenching shore littered with regrets.

This tale about depression is quite depressing itself. Its message about the understanding and addressing mental illness may be an important one, but The Son is certainly no fun.

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