At the Movies With Josh: The Son, with Hugh Jackman

The Father was one of my favorite movies of 2020. So I was looking forward to director Florian Zeller’s next picture, The Son.

Boy did he drop the ball with this one. There’s emotional manipulation in the screenplay, and it feels like a TV movie trying to tackle teen depression. About the only thing it has going for it is the cast.

We’ve seen these types of stories done before, and a lot better. And if you’re going to tackle a topic that’s been done – bring something new to the table (The Father did this well with dementia).

Four Good Days (Glenn Close, Mila Kunis) came out the same year as The Father, and I was expecting to hate it. I have seen so many movies with parents dealing with drug addict kids and didn’t feel the need to see another on the subject; but it was done well and was entertaining. So tackling a familiar topic can work.

The always reliable Hugh Jackman plays Peter, who makes a good living and is about to take a big job with a political campaign. He has a new baby with his younger trophy wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby). Ex-wife Kate (the always reliable Laura Dern) shows up at their door, to talk about their teenage son Nicholas (Zen McGrath), who hasn’t gone to school in a month. He’s also suffering from depression. I enjoyed watching the scene at the door, wondering how a new, younger wife would feel when she has to deal with kids from a previous marriage. Perhaps that’s because I had a stepfather, and was fascinated by the occasional fights I’d hear my parents have over the kids he had from his first wife. 

The plot thickens when it’s suggested that Nicholas should come to live with his father. They don’t have the best relationship, and it’s interesting for the audience to speculate if that’s because of the kid suffering depression, or the father working so much and not being around. 

The movie gets less interesting, when we realize this isn’t just your garden variety teen angst, but with him cutting himself and other things, he really is suffering with mental issues.

When they dip into the revelation that Peter didn’t have the best childhood – it gives us an incredible scene with Anthony Hopkins (from The Father), but also doesn’t quite work. A bit more subtle approach would’ve helped in this film.

A lot of the fighting scenes become repetitive, and characters start making decisions that everyone in the audience will be wondering about. Smart characters can’t make dumb decisions and expect us to go with the flow. For example, the boy argues with his dad, and mentions the gun he has behind the washing machine. The dad explains it was a gift, but we’re wondering – why not get that gun out of the house before this kid uses it? Especially when you have a new baby. And why, at that point, doesn’t the new wife say, “Ya know what? I wasn’t thrilled with your son moving in with us, but…he’s actually dangerous and we have a baby. Either he goes, or I go.”

And regarding the gun, Chekhov once said something about a gun (and I don’t remember the exact quote), that if you’re introducing a gun in the first act, it better be used in the second, or why was it even brought up.

There were a few scenes where conversations take place, and you feel like it might start working. When Jackman yells a bit and uses his authoritative voice, it’s powerful. Then there will be a scene that follows, that’s just poorly done and doesn’t feel the least bit authentic. For example, when the husband and ex-wife meet at a restaurant to discuss the latest problem with their kid, I wondered…what new wife would be happy about that? Could this conversation not take place on the phone? I thought the same thing in the opening, when she shows up at their door. If I were the new wife, I’d ask, “Why does she have to come over to where we live? Could she not have talked with you about your son on your phone?”

And while I liked Jackman’s loud voice when he’s mad, I also thought Dern’s facial expressions were great. She has “resting worry face.”

As the movie goes on, you dislike the kid more and more. Shouldn’t we be having sympathy for someone that’s fighting depression?

So Florian Zeller’s debut film The Father was brilliant, and it’s his sophomore slump with The Son. Let’s hope his 3rd film – The Sister, or The Mother, or whatever it will be – is more like the first.

2 stars out of 5.

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