‘The Son’ – Review (TIFF)

Florian Zeller’s sophomore effort is a manipulative disaster that fails in all departments.

I had high hopes for this film. Florian Zeller’s debut film, The Father, was amongst my favourites of 2020. What made The Father work so well was that it felt both honest and unique. It put us in the mind of a man suffering from dementia, so we felt what he was going through. It truly felt like we were losing our minds. It was genuinely heartbreaking, and the performances reflected that perfectly. However, The Son is the opposite of everything I just said.

Everything about this movie feels forced. Nothing feels real or interesting. It feels less like a conversation starter on mental health; it feels more like Zeller is just trying to push buttons to make us feel sad. It all fails. I felt no attachment to the plot, and I call it a plot generously because this film doesn’t really have one.

Once again based on a stage play by Zeller, The Son is basically about a teenager named Nicholas (Zen McGrath) who is suffering from depression, or at least Florian Zeller’s narrow-minded idea of what depression is. It mainly focuses on his father, Peter (Hugh Jackman), struggling to understand and deal with his son’s depression. Now, that’s not an inherently bad idea. It is true that parents can have a poor understanding of their kid’s depression and could handle it poorly. The problem is – not understanding depression is literally what this movie is. 

Zeller clearly is not the correct person to make a movie about dealing with teenage depression. He seems to have this blanketed idea of the subject. In his mind, being a depressed kid just makes you a moody, sad sack all the time who routinely cuts your own arm and bashes the back of your head against the wall for no apparent reason (that’s a real scene in this movie). And it doesn’t help that the cast here is also on Zeller’s level as the performances are almost all insincere and more interested in dropping to their knees, begging the Academy for an Oscar.

The only exception is Vanessa Kirby. She’s the only person who actually feels like a human being, although that might have to do with the fact that her character is the most detached from Nicholas, as his stepmother. McGrath plays Nicholas with the depth and emotional complexities of a marionette puppet. As far as debut performances go, this is certainly not the best first impression. Laura Dern, who plays Nicholas’ mom and Peter’s ex-wife Kate, feels disturbingly miscast. Almost all of her line readings are just plain bad, and her moments where she’s supposed to show emotions feel like she’s forcing it out. Granted, part of that I can blame on Zeller’s poor direction and weak script.

As far as Hugh Jackman’s performance goes, I can’t say it’s the worst part of the movie. (High bar, but it’s true.) Is he good? Not particularly. He’s perfectly fine in the smaller moments but in the larger moments, his performance is hammy to a laughable extent. I didn’t feel like this was a genuine person going through the emotions of the moment; instead, it felt like Jackman saw an opportunity when he saw Anthony Hopkins win the Oscar for The Father. And speaking of Hopkins, he was fine in the one scene he was in, but he was so unnecessary. His character wasn’t even in the original play; it feels like he’s only here so that Zeller can put Hopkins in the movie.

To be blunt, Zeller does everything wrong here. The script has so many laughable moments and lines of dialogue. There are some moments where Zeller was trying to be tragic, but it was so transparently manipulative. This time around, Zeller is clearly more interested in pushing buttons than trying to start a genuine conversation about the subject. And I genuinely have no clue what he was attempting regarding his directorial choices. His direction varies from extremely basic (as in he did nothing more than tell the actors to do what’s on the script and then turn the camera on) to outright preposterous. The way he positions his camera in some scenes is so bizarre, with the actor on the far end of one side and nothing on the other side. Sometimes the camera is inexplicably shaky during mundane conversations. I kid you not, I thought a fight was going on in the projector booth. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, and that’s kind of the problem.

There was one moment in the entire movie where I was thinking, “Okay, this is good.” I won’t go into specifics, but the scene involves dancing with Jackman, Kirby, and McGrath. It’s the only moment in the movie where I believed the relationship between these people. It was a moment of relief; it was genuinely nice. And then they ruined it within the scene. The way this scene crescendoed was embarrassing to the point where it retconned everything I enjoyed about the scene. It seriously felt like self-sabotage. This was the moment when I just said, “Okay, this movie is awful.” 

When the movie finally met its conclusion, I was infuriated. The ending is terrible. It’s sadistic. It’s insensitive. It’s almost exploitative. The ending was framed and staged as some sort of elaborate prank, and it was baffling, predictable, and somehow baffling because it was so predictable. The whole movie was leading up to this climax and it was handled in the worst way imaginable. It was enough for it to knock several stars off of my rating.

The Son did elicit a lot of emotions out of me, but none of them were intended. Florian Zeller’s sophomore effort is a manipulative disaster that fails in all departments, and it gives me no pleasure saying that.

Grade: F

Oscar Prospects
Likely: Best Actor
Should Be Considered: Best Supporting Actress (Vanessa Kirby)

Release Date: November 11, 2022
Where To Watch: In theaters

Adriano Caporusso
Critic and journalist student from Toronto, Canada
Favorite Actor: Brendan Fraser
Sign: Taurus

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