Severe Daddy Issues — The Son
Florian Zeller shocked the world two years ago with the cinematic adaptation of his stage play, The Father. Through clever editing, poignant dialogue, masterful set design, and incredible performances from Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins (the latter winning the Oscar for Best Actor), the film presented dementia in the starkest terms ever seen on screen. It was honest, heartbreaking, and profound.
His follow-up, The Son, also based on one of his plays, is also heartbreaking, in that it’s a maudlin piece of manipulative garbage that takes a real issue that affects millions of people and exploits it in a cheap bid for prestige. Just about every element of this picture bastardizes everything that made The Father so beautiful, and it’s done in such a ham-fisted, obvious manner that it insults the collective intelligence of everyone in the theatre. And in case you’re curious, Zeller also has a play called The Mother. If he makes that into a movie as well, I’m out.
The titular offspring is Nicholas, played by Zen McGrath. The son of divorced parents, Nicholas lives with his mother Kate (Laura Dern), and has become exceedingly distant from her. After receiving word that the boy has been skipping school for a solid month, Kate reaches out to her ex, Peter (Hugh Jackman), who has a new baby with his second wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby), pleading for him to take a more active role in Nicholas’ life and education. Wanting to be a good father to both of his sons because divorce doesn’t mean abandonment (though this film would have you think otherwise), Peter visits Nicholas, who asks to move in with him. It will be an additional stress on Beth as a new mother, but Peter is successful enough that they have plenty of spare room in their apartment, and he clearly wants to do right by his teenage son, so he agrees. Nicholas makes the move, Peter enrolls him in a new school so he can catch up on lost time, and everything seems to be okay.
But of course, because we have to artificially jerk tears, it’s not. Despite Peter spending inordinate amounts of time trying to connect with him, Nicholas has not made any significant improvements. And in the areas where he professes to be doing better, he’s actively lying. He’s aloof one minute and confrontational the next. He stops just short of calling Beth a whore for entering a relationship with Peter while he and Kate were still married. He either can’t or won’t go into any detail about what he’s going through, other than to say he’s in pain. He keeps a knife under his bed so he can cut his arms. In nearly all things, the material ensures that Zen McGrath’s performance is the exact opposite of living up to his name.
This is not to minimize the very real problem that is depression, especially in teenagers. Sometimes it can be difficult to put what you’re feeling into words, and even when you’re able to, it can seem like no one understands, which can lead to standoffish behavior. I don’t want to diminish that sentiment in any way, especially because I went through similar travails when I was even younger than the character. Trust me, I get it.
But that’s not the issue here. The issue is that this is an incredibly weak script that reduces something complex and visceral to moody whining and entry-level angst. Rather than any sincere attempt at treating him (there’s like, one half-assed scene in a therapist’s office), the movie instead plays Nicholas’ mental illness like a feature-length episode of Dr. Phil, far more interested in finding someone to blame for the sake of melodrama than having an honest conversation.
That blame falls squarely on Peter, because the screenplay says so. The closest thing we get to anything resembling a motivation or diagnosis for Nicholas before the third act is that all of his problems apparently started when Peter had an affair with Beth, eventually divorcing Kate and remarrying, and even daring to have another child. That’s it. The emotional core of the entire film is predicated upon a kid not being able to cope with his parents breaking up, even though literally half of all marriages end this way. No matter what Peter does to be a good father in the movie’s present, the fact that he didn’t stay with Kate forever means everything that happens to Nicholas is his fault.
The amount of credibility Zeller tries to lend to this theory is borderline sickening. It’s perfectly fair to judge Peter in moral and ethical terms for his previous infidelity. I’m okay with that. But in the end, he took the most honorable road that he could within that context. He remarried, he’s providing for his new infant son, he’s a responsible co-parent with Kate, with whom we are only shown evidence of an amicable separation. I’m sure there were dark, hurtful moments for everyone involved when that marriage initially broke down, because that’s just what happens. But who the fuck is this kid to decide how others should live their lives, especially when he won’t even bother doing the basic, performative actions of a functional person in society? He won’t go to school because he’s sad for reasons he refuses to articulate, but he gets some sort of moral high ground over his parents for things that aren’t even really his business? Get the fuck outta here!
This heavy-handed tripe is exacerbated even further by a one scene tangent where Peter visits his own father, Anthony, played by Anthony Hopkins, which makes one wonder if Zeller intentionally writes characters with that name into his plays in hopes of this exact casting. Hopkins’ performance is entirely one-note, as he plays a completely detached businessman with little to no affection for Peter or any member of his family, caring only for social status and money. When he hears of Nicholas’ situation, he jumps down Peter’s throat in anticipation of Peter blaming him for everything, in a grotesque, maladroit reversal of generational trauma tropes. Peter legitimately fears that he might turn into his dad one day (in the one truly admirable part of Jackman’s performance, he affects an American accent that incorporates shades of Hopkins’ voice, making it believable that he could have been his child), and remains active in his efforts to help Nicholas as a result, but we never get to explore that angle. Instead, we’re forced into a false dilemma where Peter either has to acquiesce to all of Nicholas’ bullshit or brand himself as being just as bad as Anthony, and no serious person would ever buy into that.
Even in the one moment where Peter asserts his right to self-determination, it’s treated as if he’s a monster because eventually he shoves Nicholas after several minutes of the kid provoking him. Again, if you don’t believe in corporal punishment, that’s your right, but keep things in perspective. He shoves Nicholas. He doesn’t hit him. He doesn’t beat him. He doesn’t verbally abuse him. He tries to reason with him repeatedly only to be met with selfish, argumentative nonsense that makes it increasingly clear that Nicholas only wanted to move in to try to guilt Peter into dumping Beth and remarrying Kate for his sake alone. And when Peter finally reaches his breaking point after months of being lied to, after making sacrifices well above and beyond what anyone would expect of him, all he does is shove the kid, which he instantly regrets. Far better people have done far worse, but Zeller frames the situation as that one instant of weakness justifying all the dishonesty and self-harm that Nicholas engages in, and I call bull. It all leads to one of the most gratuitous, contrived, and emotionally conniving climaxes I’ve ever seen, one that’s telegraphed from about the 20-minute mark (in a two-hour movie), and that required all of my constitution not to yell, “FUCK YOU!” at the screen.
There is exactly ONE terrific scene that prevents this trash from falling to the absolute basement of 2022 cinema (and yet it’s campaigning for awards somehow). Late in the film, when Nicholas takes very drastic actions that we all saw coming, he’s admitted to a psychiatric ward to get him the help he desperately needs. A few days later, Peter and Kate meet with the doctor (Hugh Quarshie, probably best known as Captain Panaka from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) to discuss Nicholas’ treatment plan going forward. Nicholas is brought into the room along with an orderly, and in expert stage blocking, the doctor directs Nicolas to sit next to him while his parents are seated on the other side of the room. While Nicholas begs for them to discharge him, Peter and Kate talk directly to the doctor, never making eye contact with their son. His feelings and interruptions are acknowledged, but he’s never directly given the floor, because he is a scared child and the doctor is a medical professional with years of experience.
This scene should have been playing the entire way through. Listen to Nicholas, empathize and sympathize with him, but for everything else, including the objective matter of his health, only the person with the knowledge and expertise to deal with the situation should get full attention. It’s the one time where Zeller is right to tug on the heartstrings, because any parent that has to see their kid go through this will naturally be put into a truly devastating position. But in the end, it’s more important than any strong emotions in the moment to do the right thing going forward. But as this movie had long established before that point, what really matters for Zeller’s narrative is making everything Peter’s fault, so you can imagine how it all turns out.
This hits home for me pretty hard, as I’ve discussed in this space before. I’ve been to that edge. It is a scary place, and my heart gets destroyed for every single person who doesn’t make it back. I was lucky, because I had a family that cared enough to get me the help they couldn’t provide, and who set reasonable limits until I could prove that I had come out the other side and could take responsibility for myself again. I am alive because of that.
But Florian Zeller is not interested in any of that nuance, or even elementary intellectual honesty. All he cares about is trying to twist a knife further and further into your soul, and because of that, he completely loses sight of why he was able to do that properly with his previous outing. Through the eyes of Colman and Hopkins, we were able to vicariously experience dementia and its effects on those who suffer around it. But here all we’re supposed to care about is trauma for the sake of itself, not how to diagnose it, process it, cope with it, and move on. Nearly every scene is an exercise in soap opera-level histrionics, including an almost comical bit where Jackman collapses and cries that it really is all his fault. It has all the grace and dramatic weight of Mike Myers in Wayne’s World splashing water on his face and doing a parody of an “Oscar Clip.”
Serious subjects like depression and suicidal thoughts require a disciplined hand and deep, empathetic exploration. Instead, Florian Zeller opts at every turn for the most shallow, blatant, and aggressively disingenuous reaction possible, to the point that you’d probably be better served if everything I’ve said over the last several paragraphs was summed up in kind. So with as much respect as Zeller himself treats the matter at hand, I leave you with the sage words of one Anthony Edward Stark:
“Dads leave, no reason to be a pussy about it.”
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How do you deal with mental illness? Who honestly thought that ominous shots of a washing machine was going to be effective foreshadowing? Let me know!