Directed by: Florian Zeller
Written by: Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, Anthony Hopkins
Released: February 9, 2023
Grade: B+

The Son

17-year-old Nicholas Miller (McGrath) is struggling with depression.  There are glimpses of what’s going on inside, like when he confides in a therapist that he doesn’t feel close with people his own age, but Nicholas refuses to fully open-up.  He speaks vaguely that “life is weighing me down” and “I don’t know how to describe it.”  Every time his mum (Dern) asks a question, Nicholas’ answers are short, defensive, and unemotive.

Academy Award winning writer-director Florian Zeller (The Father), in adapting this from his own stage play, doesn’t delve into the cause of mental illness.  In interviews for the film, he describes depression as a “mystery” where there’s often “no clear explanation” for what’s behind it.  I’m fine with his interpretation but the lack of clarity behind Nicholas’ troubles may frustrate some viewers.

What Zeller does illustrate is the impact of depression on those around us, particularly our close family.  Nicholas’ parents are divorced and having spent several years living with his birth mother, he asks to move in his dad (Jackman) and step-mum (Kirby) for reasons that don’t always make sense.  Their differing reactions to the circumstances are the film’s most thought-provoking elements.  Do these characters deserve any negative judgement?

The dad wants to genuinely help but his approach is to come up with easy answers (e.g. his son probably just got rejected by a girl) as opposed to understanding the deeper complexities of depression.  He’s also struggling to find the balance between his already busy work life and his now semi-upended home life.  The step-mum, busy with a newborn baby of her own, admits to being “unsettled” by Nicholas’ arrival and the new living arrangements.  However, she doesn’t want to push back too strongly so as not to be seen as insensitive.

The Son is scrappy in places.  Two-time Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins appears in a scene which is more of a “cameo” to help boost advertising potential as opposed to something necessary to the film’s narrative.  It’s a trivial subplot which wasn’t even in the play.  Another minor storyline involving the dad possibly working with a U.S. Senator also comes across as a time-filling distraction.  Did we really need a close-up of an obviously distracted Hugh Jackman sitting around a boardroom table?

Qualms aside, I was interested by the interaction between the four leads.  20-year-old Australian newcomer Zen McGrath is up to the challenge of the tricky role and working alongside his experienced co-stars.  I also enjoyed the way in which Zeller slowly builds tension and keeps audiences unsure about whether a happy resolution is possible.  This is highlighted in a great scene where a babysitter cancels and other options are then debated.

Unable to match the awards season love of The Father, The Son reaffirms Zeller’s talents as a great storyteller.