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Florian Zeller’s “The Father” was a searing portrait of a man struggling with dementia. It took us inside his increasingly shaky perception of the world with profound empathy, and Sir Anthony Hopkins’ performance won an Oscar. He returns to Zeller’s disappointing “The Son” for a brief, bracing scene to let us know that the title character in this film is not the troubled teenager but the man who is both father and son. That man is Peter, played here by Hugh Jackman.
That scene, almost a full story in itself, is in sharp contrast to the rest of the film, which is well-intentioned but poorly constructed, counting on sympathy for characters who seem to be living in an alternate universe where teenagers have never struggled with mental illness. It zig-zags for no apparent purpose. There are repeated shots of characters not being present in what is happening because they are thinking about something else and repeated shots of a washing machine running and then still, a useless metaphor.
Peter is a highly successful professional who has important meetings about financial matters in a big office with impressive views of the Manhattan skyline. He is married to Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and they have a baby named Theo. They live in a beautiful apartment with tastefully exposed brick walls. As the movie begins, Beth is soothing Theo to sleep with a lullaby and Peter is smiling at them. They are a perfect, happy family. But then Kate (Laura Dern) rings the doorbell. She is Peter’s first wife and she has bad news about their 17-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath). For the past month, he has not shown up at school.
Nicholas moves in with Peter, Beth, and Theo and starts at a new school. Peter is convinced that things are turning around for Nicholas. They are not.
There is nothing more painful than having a child who is suffering, and perhaps it is understandable that Peter and Kate are in denial about how severe the struggle is for Nicholas. But in 21st-century Manhattan it is unimaginable that wealthy parents would be so clueless, self-involved, and disconnected from the available resources to bungle their response so badly. There are some affecting scenes, especially one where Kate, with Dern heartbreakingly vulnerable, tells Peter she feels that she has failed. And Hopkins, as Peter’s icy father, is intriguingly narcissistic.
The scene is intended to connect to the rest of the story and illuminate Peter’s conflicts and his tendency to view his son as a barometer of his success. But it falls short. The film does occasionally give us a sense of the relentless impact of mental illness on caregivers; how a sick family member, especially a child, crushes the spirit of those who care the most. When he finally loses his temper, though, it is more about his feelings than Nicholas’ and his desperate attempts to essentially order his son to get better are portrayed with more sympathy from Zeller than they deserve from us.
"The Son" also touches on the feral cleverness of some people with mental illness and their skill at finding the right vulnerable places to distract us from seeing what's going on with them or insisting on treatment. Nicholas knows Peter’s contempt for his own father’s neglect makes him especially sensitive to the suggestion that he has not been fully present, or that his leaving Kate for Beth and replacing not only his wife but his child makes it possible to divert his attention from the seriousness of Nicholas’ symptoms. Peter needs to think he is a good father so much—and needs to think that Nicholas thinks that—that he underestimates how desperately ill his son is, lulled by Nicholas’ one-two punch of recrimination and false assurance.
However, most of the power of these moments comes from our strong feelings about the issues, not from what we see, as the screenplay is superficial and manipulative. And there is a final non-twisty twist that is nearly an affront to us and the real-life families facing this pain, thankfully more sensitively portrayed in better movies.
Now playing in theaters.
Hugh Jackman as Peter
Zen McGrath as Nicholas
Laura Dern as Kate
Vanessa Kirby as Beth
Anthony Hopkins as Peter’s Father
William Hope as Andrew
George Cobell as Young Nicholas
Isaura Barbé-Brown as Sophia
Mercedes Bahleda as Mary