Florian Zeller’s Drama Lacks Depth & Sincerity

Jan 9, 2023

Home Movie Reviews The Son Review: Florian Zeller’s Drama Lacks Depth & Sincerity [Middleburg]

It’s sad to say that The Son, Zeller’s follow-up to The Father, does not treat its subject matter with the same grace or consideration. 

Zen McGrath, Hugh Jackman, and Laura Dern in The Son

Florian Zeller made waves last year with The Father, a drama starring Anthony Hopkins as the titular character with Alzheimer’s. The film was moving, showing the effects of Alzheimer’s from the perspective of the person going through it, as well as how it impacts his family. Expertly crafted and tackling the subject matter with great care and sensitivity, Zeller was able to adapt his stage play with nuance. So it’s sad to say that The Son — Zeller’s follow-up to The Father, which was adapted by screenwriter Christopher Hampton from the director’s play — does not treat its subject matter with the same grace or consideration.

Peter (Hugh Jackman) is at an all-time high in his life. He’s just welcomed a baby boy with Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and his career is taking him to places he’s always longed to go. When his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) shows up unexpectedly to tell him that their son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath), has been skipping school for the last month, the pair are concerned something is wrong. Nicholas, who has depression, moves in with Peter and Beth. For a while, Peter believes things might be looking up for Nicholas, but things are more dire than they seem.

Related: Related: Living Review: Bill Nighy Gets Vulnerable In Touching Adaptation [Middleburg]

The Son is underwhelming and often insincere. Rather than have the film be from Nicholas’ perspective, Zeller makes the odd choice to have the events unfold through Peter’s eyes. This leaves Nicholas with little dimension and there is never a moment where the film bothers to try understanding him or exploring his interiority. To that end, he’s extremely underwritten and Zen McGrath’s performance doesn’t help to elevate the thinly developed character. The actor’s performance is often painful to watch, and there is no genuine gravitas in his portrayal. It’s especially weak in scenes where he’s reacting to Hugh Jackman.

Nicholas’ lack of depth is more so a writing problem, however, as he’s made to be a plot device rather than a fully realized person who is dealing with depression. What’s more, Nicholas comes off as manipulative and unsympathetic, which is confusing considering The Son is meant to evoke empathy and understanding for what he’s feeling. Instead, Nicholas — and McGrath, by extension — comes off as more annoying than anything, which is the fault of a poorly written script that doesn’t bother truly seeing Nicholas beyond his depression. After two hours, the audience learns absolutely nothing about him besides his struggle to come to terms with his parents’ divorce.

Hugh Jackman and Zen McGrath in The Son

The story is only strong when it’s focused on Peter’s own relationship with his father (played by Anthony Hopkins) and how, despite how hard Peter tries, certain behaviors can be passed down to one’s own child, repeating the process of trauma. The Son isn’t balanced at all, however, preferring to deal with Peter’s guilt above all else. While this gives Hugh Jackman enough meaty material to work, even his strong and effective performance can’t overcome the shortcomings of the film’s direction and writing. To that end, Zeller’s directing is uninspired here. Whereas the camera’s movements brought the audience into the character’s mind in The Father, effectively making it eerie, claustrophobic and emotional, The Son has no such tendencies. There are shots of a washer running, stopping, and running again, as though to convey the otherwise monotonous moments of daily life, but it’s all devoid of genuine feeling or dimension.

Zeller wants to shed light on teen depression and how ill-equipped some parents may be at handling such an overwhelming matter — something which, to the film’s credit, comes across loud and clear throughout — but mishandles the subject matter. There is little here in terms of depth or sensitivity, both of which are needed when tackling suicidal ideation and depression. The fact that The Son mostly ignores Nicholas as a person speaks to the film’s flimsy execution. There is much potential lost here and, though Jackman especially puts in a heartfelt performance, the heavy-handedness with which Zeller handles the film’s topic and characters leaves a lot to be desired.

Next: White Noise Review: Noah Baumbach’s Latest Is Messy, Tedious Drama [Middleburg]

The Son played during the 2022 Middleburg Film Festival. The film will be released in limited theaters on November 25 before expanding nationwide. It is 123 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving suicide, and strong language.

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