LFF 2022: The Son – Review

Release Date – 17th February 2023, Cert – 15, Run-time – 2 hours 3 minutes, Director – Florian Zeller

When his teenage son (Zen McGrath) comes to live with him, Peter (Hugh Jackman) finds himself trying to understand what’s going on in his son’s struggling mind.

With 2021’s The Father director Florian Zeller took his play of the same name (alongside co-writer Christopher Hampton) and made it work on the screen through the various changing rooms and designs that the central character found himself thrown into through the lens of dementia. With The Son (largely unrelated) Zeller, once again alongside Hampton, takes another of his plays with a much more difficult idea to try and visualise and put the audience into. We see a series of conversations, primarily between father and son, as Hugh Jackman’s Peter tries to understand what is going on in his teenage son’s (Zen McGrath) mind.

Nicholas is struggling with depression alongside various unspoken mental health issues. His mind is a chaotic place that’s throwing him in all sorts of directions which he can’t fully understand. It makes it even more difficult for those around him to understand causing frustrating, anger and upset between the various family members. Early in the film we see him moving in with his dad, away from mother Kate (Laura Dern) – who, while not the central focus certainly feels sidelined for a lot of the film. With girlfriend Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and recently-born baby Theo also in the Manhattan apartment there’s a lot for Peter to already deal with, alongside his advancing job prospects in Washington’s political sphere. The fact that Nicholas continues to not turn up to school simply adds more stresses which he views as laziness and a lack of cooperation rather than anything else.

It’s partly this which The Son concerns itself with. Trying to show a struggle to understand mental health and what’s going on in someone’s mind; even for the person whose mind it is. Much of the drama and development is confined to a set of conversations, the highlights of the film where it actually manages to put character’s feelings into words. When something such as the themes the film deals with is so difficult to talk about, particularly when you can’t entirely represent it visually, there’s a clear struggle ahead.

As Nicholas tries to explain “I’m not built like other people… I’m in pain all the time. And I’m tired. I’m tired of being in pain” the film lifts and finds the push to say what it wants to and needs to say through the key character in the piece (there’s no denying that Jackman in playing the lead, though). While what has come beforehand is somewhat uncertain in its treatment of the subject matter its these glimpses that spark interest in what’s unfolding and how the characters are feeling. We may get to moments, such as a particular speech by Jackman after this moment, where we start to think ‘I’ve seen this done before, and better’, but as a whole there’s a slightly watchable nature to the film as a whole.

Things may not be revolutionary or game-changing or particularly striking emotionally but there are enough moments that click within The Son to make it generally worthwhile. The moments which manage to break through the struggle of how to represent what Nicholas is going through, and to some extent the responses of those around him, and give the viewer a proper indication of how his mind is making him feel. Almost every character struggles to communicate and in part while this is much the point of the film it also prohibits it sometimes from progressing or pushing forward. When it does it feels like we’ve seen what it does before. While what it does is fine it’s not entirely emotionally gripping. But, when at its best, it’s because, like some of the characters, it’s finally found a moment where it’s been able to bear through the struggle to put something into words.

There’s a struggle to put something you can’t overly see into words, even more so when the subject matter is such a difficult thing to talk about for many people. When The Son does put certain aspects into words it’s at its best, we might feel we’ve seen certain elements done better before, but overall there’s a watchable – if not always emotionally engaging – piece of work here.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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