Which brings us to “The Son,” one of the most discussed films of the 2022 festival season already. Florian Zeller’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “The Father” came into fest season with incredibly high expectations. Could Zeller do it again? Could he get star Hugh Jackman an Oscar like he did Sir Anthony Hopkins? The subject matter of “The Son” could be enough for most people, but where “The Father” treated its subject with sensitivity and grace, this movie cudgels its audience with a manipulative script, some truly misguided performances, and even thin visual storytelling. It’s a melodrama that thinks it’s saying something important but it’s just yelling in your face, unwilling to do the character work to understand its subject beyond what it can do to provoke an audience with it. There will be people who have battled the issues at play in “The Son” who will walk out of this movie angry, offended by the way it steadfastly refuses to really start a conversation about depression. It’s too busy making you feel awful to do anything like that.
Peter (Jackman) has just become a father for a second time with his second wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby). He gets a call from his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) with some shocking news: their son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) hasn’t been to school in a month. He gets up, gets ready, leaves with his backpack, but never shows up. And the cuts on Nicholas’ arm are equally upsetting to his parents. They agree maybe he should go live with Peter for a while to try and put things back together, but Nicholas’ depression is amplified further by feeling like the one who his dad left behind to start a new family. Can Kate and Peter get through to Nicholas in time to stop him from hurting himself?
Honestly, while that should be the question of “The Son,” it rarely feels like it’s actually considered as Zeller and Christopher Hampton’s script keep pushing this poor kid down the track of their manipulative drama. There was simply never enough attempt to make Nicholas into a fully-fledged believable character, which is amplified further by McGrath giving a shockingly disappointing performance, one that’s so full of tics (squinted eyes for crying despite there being no actual tears, for example) and awkward line readings. I blame Zeller for never getting McGrath to the believable emotional place for us to feel his pain. He needs to be three-dimensional and real in the way that the characters were in “The Father” or else he’s a plot device instead of a character. Even the always-excellent Dern can’t escape the truly bad screenplay here, one that doesn’t care about its characters beyond how they can push around the audience’s emotions.
Kirby makes out better, but Hugh Jackman is the real victim of the shortcuts taken on the screenwriting and directorial levels here. He introduced the film at TIFF as one that he felt was important because of the subject of teen suicide and you can feel that commitment in his performance. He’s giving it his all. It’s just the movie that gives so little back to him.