Florian Zeller aims to repeat the trick of his Oscar-winning The Father with this austere adaptation of his own play, Le Fils. The Son is a study of the emotional impact divorce has on a teenage boy and, consequently, his parents. Zeller again teams with Anthony Hopkins, though he only appears in a cameo (and a deliciously spiteful one at that). This time, the dramatic heavy lifting is shouldered by Hugh Jackman (as 50-year-old New York attorney Peter) Laura Dern (his ex-wife Kate), and Zen McGrath as the nucleus of the film’s pain, 17-year-old Nicholas.
Wounded by his father leaving his mother for a younger woman (Vanessa Kirby, underserved) and starting a new family, Nicholas has sunk into a depression that his parents can’t seem to get a handle on, let alone understand how to ease. "I don’t know where all this sadness comes from," Dern’s hand-wringing Ma despairs while Jackman bristles – a man with his own unresolved parental trauma and a dad (Hopkins) who tells him to "just fucking get over it".
As Nicholas’ feelings churn like the constantly thumping washing machine in the laundry room, the adults in his life try to navigate the opaqueness of children, the guilt and self-doubt inherent in raising them, and the repeated sins of the father.
Co-written by The Father’s Christopher Hampton, The Son betrays its theatrical origins in minimal locations and dialogue that feel stagey when translated to screen. Even the persuasive Jackman can’t fully swing some of the lines. And though he’s attempting a low-key departure from his usual fare, he’s left hanging when playing against McGrath, who struggles to capture the emotional range required of the role. Operating only in ‘quivering tears’ mode, Nicholas becomes a teen trope rather than a living boy, and with his mop of curls one has to wonder if the casting team had Timothée Chalamet in mind in the wake of Beautiful Boy.
The complexity and insidious nature of mental health is handled better when medical intervention becomes necessary, with Peter and Kate challenged to make the best decision for their son despite the heartbreak that evokes - a scene that prompts a genuinely moving moment when Jackson and Dern crumple with self-reproach. Unfortunately, though, the narrative arc is foreshadowed in such a way that a third-act shock designed to gut-punch doesn’t land quite as deftly as intended.
Hopkins becomes a highlight then, his mere minutes of screen time richer and more devastating than the central trauma we’re supposed to care about. His ability to emit cruelty is as weaponized as Hannibal Lecter himself.
The Son reaches US theaters on November 11, 2022. There's currently no UK release date. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way soon.