I am all for a good cry while watching a movie. In fact, I’m a shameless crier. I have no problem with these Oscar dramas that make me feel all the feelings. So, knowing his past, I dove into Florian Zeller’s newest work, The Son. Will the drama ride a wave of weepy emotion to where it counts this awards season? Read on!
The Son follows a lawyer (Hugh Jackman). He’s over the moon raising his newborn son with his wife (Vanessa Kirby.) However, his life is thrown for a loop when his first wife (Laura Dern) informs him their son (Zen McGrath) is having problems in school. Will he patch things up with the struggling teenager before it’s too late? Florian Zeller directs the film from a script he co-wrote with Christopher Hampton.
The Son follows hotly on the heels of Zeller’s successful 2019 drama The Father. A director with a heavy theatrical foundation, Zeller’s trademark style helped Olivia Colman bring home a Best Actress Oscar in his directorial debut.
The Son is very much an actor’s showpiece. Zeller’s script is very theatrical (in every sense of the word.) With this, the burden of execution falls squarely on the performers. The adults stand up brilliantly to the decidedly challenging script. Hugh Jackman emerges as the MVP, shouldering much of the emotional weight of this heavy story.
Through his portrayal, Jackman finds a beautiful and poignant emotionality in Peter. While much of his arc can be interpreted as a look at masculinity, Jackman brings a vulnerability that will undoubtedly strike a chord with many.
Peter is wealthy, intelligent, and self-assured. Even better still, he looks like Hugh Jackman. Life is good. Through his eyes, though, we see a man grasping at straws.
His whole life has been crafted in the shadow of his powerful absentee father (Anthony Hopkins). He’s actively striven not to emulate his father’s flaws. Yet, in the face of his son’s mental health struggle, Peter has no idea what the correct answer is. However, he must be a strong provider. He has a wife and a newborn to take care of. He has to know the right answers. He’s a “grown-up,” after all.
Jackman’s fragility in the third act is stunning to watch. This ranks as a career-best amongst his performances as he continues dipping his toe into drama. Here’s hoping we see Jackman continue to stretch his acting muscles with powerful work like this.
Unfortunately, much of the film’s emotionality (and there’s a lot of it) is squandered by an uneven performance from McGrath as Peter’s son Nicholas. Nicholas is undoubtedly a challenging role. When examining his uneven family situation, it is easy to understand what the teenager struggling with depression is going through.
However, the movie never seems to agree on just who Nicholas is. The young performer struggles with the heavy emotional content. For much of the film, this is hidden in his icy detachment. Unfortunately, though, as his facade cracks and Nicholas must break down, McGrath isn’t able to reach the needed levels.
In the resulting performance, McGrath always feels like he’s just acting. When Nicholas cries, he’s never really crying. He’s acting like he’s crying.
Whether this is a creative choice or a struggle within the performance, it casts doubt on Nicholas. As the film develops, it’s difficult to sympathize with him. Instead, a shadow of uncertainty hangs over the young man. Is he just manipulating his parents? Should they be scared of him? Ultimately, when the point of the narrative is to rally around these characters during this emotional period, Nicholas, as he exists on screen, makes this a challenge.
In the adult characters, this movie paints interesting and decidedly human figures. There’s a clear sense of the dueling narratives and weighing everyone’s needs. No one is the villain in their own story.
My one qualm with the adults is the lack of Vanessa Kirby, who is refreshingly realistic as Peter’s wife. She’s a new mom struggling with all the changes in her life. What she doesn’t ask for is the complications brought by her husband’s former life on top of that.
The film handles the character with respect. Not all movies might. Beth is the former “other woman,” after all. However, she disappears for long stretches. Kirby is one of the better performers to come out of her generation. Don’t waste her!
Meanwhile, consider this a trigger warning. The Son should be one huge trigger warning. The tone Zeller crafts is relentlessly dark. This film deals with mental health struggles, self-harm and suicide. The movie walks an incredibly tight and relentless rope as it relates to emotionality. None of these subjects are easy. If these are hot-button topics, stay away.
Finally, as the film struggles with Nicholas and some specific story choices deep in act two, there is an unmistakable whiff of emotional manipulation. The Son is crafted specifically to bring out the tissues, and it uses some challenging topics to do it. Unfortunately, while a work that lands these punches could be an Oscar shoo-in, the flaws in The Son’s construction emphasize this blatant manipulation and change the discussion. Suddenly, it’s not so easy to get lost in the feelings.
All in all, Florian Zeller struggles to capture the heights he reached with The Father. While The Son brings some dynamite performances, it is ultimately weighed down where it matters the most. This casts a shadow over the narrative and holds back the emotional power a story like this thrives on.
The Son is now playing in select markets. The movie opens nationwide on January 20, 2023.
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