“The Son” doesn’t shine

The Son (Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Anthony Hopkins) – In 2020, Director/Writer Florian Zeller hit the awards jackpot with six Academy Award nominations, including two wins, for his film, The Father. Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor while Zeller and his co-writer, Christopher Hampton, won for Best Screenplay. It was that movie about the progression and effects of dementia that convinced me to move my mother into a nursing home with a specialty in memory care.

Now comes Zeller’s follow-up film, The Son. Focusing on a teenager experiencing depression, The Son may hit home for many parents who have felt helpless and/or frustrated by their beloved child’s mental health challenges.

Hugh Jackman plays Peter Miller, a busy and ambitious attorney and political aspirant, who is divorced from Kate (played by Laura Dern) with whom their son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath), lives. Kate is frustrated with their son; she’s having trouble relating to him and connecting. And when she finds out that Nicholas hasn’t been to school in weeks – all the time lying to her about his life – she approaches Peter about taking the boy into his home. Peter is reluctant because he and his new wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), have a new baby. Injecting Nicholas into the home and requiring Peter to devote more time to his son, would seriously disrupt life for everyone.

But Peter knows his responsibility and accepts it. What ensues is a disturbing, agonizing, and painful family drama that alternates between hope, helplessness, honesty, deception, devotion, and desperation. The movie screams seriousness: there are few happy moments except in flashbacks. Nicholas’ depression touches the life of everyone around him but especially the boy himself. He seems to be making progress; his parents seem to be reconciling; he seems to be integrating into his new home well. And then … I’ll leave that to your viewing.

Jackman is a great showman, displaying his extraordinary talent as a Broadway star (The Music Man), a movie comic book multi-part superhero (Wolverine), and a film superstar (The Greatest Showman, Les Misérables, The Prestige). He lobbied hard to play Peter when he got the script from Zeller.

Dern, who comes from a much-decorated Hollywood family (Oscar winner Bruce Dern and 3-time Oscar nominated Diane Ladd) owns an Oscar of her own and three nominations in total.  She has starred in big budget movies like Jurassic Park but mostly in “little” films like October Sky, Wild, and Marriage Story.

You would think that The Son would be well served by these exceptional talents.  Not so much. The film depends on ensemble, on chemistry.  Zen McGrath, who plays Nicholas, is less than an exceptional actor. The role requires him to show great range, but he seems limited. Even Jackman seems uncomfortable, struggling not only as the conflicted Peter but also to find this character. Dern seems superfluous, a failure of a poor script.

And speaking of superfluous, Anthony Hopkins, the star of Zeller’s The Father, makes a cameo as Peter’s father, a judgmental, super-rich SOB whose disdain for his own son is supposed to make the audience identify with Peter’s drive to solve the mysteries of his son’s illness. But all it does is make us wonder why Peter isn’t emotionally scarred.

The Son is an example of how a poor script can sabotage a potentially deep, compelling film. The movie has too much dialogue and, worse, too much strained dialogue. I predict it won’t even do as well as The Father’s meager $2 million U.S. gross ($25 million worldwide).

The film made the rounds of the film festivals last year (I saw it at the Vancouver International Film Festival) where it got mixed results. Jackman was nominated for Best Actor at the Golden Globes. The film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. But by in large, it has been a disappointment.

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