Depression is already a dense enough subject for one film to tackle, but when you add generational family trauma to the mix, you can easily miss your mark if not done right. It’s not like Florian Zeller’s The Son doesn’t at least have acting ingredients to make this work. Hugh Jackman, Vanessa Kirby, and Laura Dern try to give their all into a story that doesn’t seem to understand the center point of its narrative or how to bring all of its elements together in a coherent matter that flows together. The film brings up a lot of thought-provoking scenarios regarding the reliability between parents and their children. Still, it picks the most surface-level way to describe this journey for shock value, where it hurts the overall point.
Peter (Jackman) is living a great life with his new partner Beth (Kirby), and their newborn baby while living in a beautiful, upscale apartment in New York. His career is taking off as a political consultant – so much so that Peter is on the cusp of getting a huge promotion that could take him off to Washington. However, his ex-wife Katie (Dern), shows up at the apartment with a valid concern about their teenage son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath). He’s been skipping school for almost a month (emails apparently did not get to her) and has been struggling with things for a while. To improve things, Nicholas feels living with his father is the way to go – thus, Peter and (reluctantly) Beth agree to this arrangement.
Therein lies one of the main problems of The Son – Nicholas doesn’t feel like a living person. Instead, the story makes him come off as a burden, a rather hollow depiction of every big screen stereotype of how depression looks like. The film calls for McGrath’s performance to be constantly in pensive sadness with very little complexity. If it wasn’t for the random emotional outbursts with Nicholas stating that he’s in pain, there’s little in his character's direction to let this be known. Nicholas is supposed to be the person you feel sympathy for – he’s a child of divorce who is caught up trying to make sense of the feelings he’s weighed down by. However, he comes off as so unlikeable, it pulls Beth’s character into its orbit somewhat unfairly.
An even (at times) more baffling choice is to make Peter’s point of view the story's primary focus. Peter has many issues dating back to what happened with his father (played by Anthony Hopkins) and a sense of abandonment. If a character has to go through a journey to find out, they shouldn’t be continuing that cycle, OK! That’s what’s supposed to happen. But Peter constantly misses the forest from the trees even though they are clear physical manifestations, and Nicholas frequently spells them out for him. Instead, Peter prefers to look through rose-colored glasses and take things Nicholas tells him at face value.
Given what led us to this point, it feels disingenuous to do so. If there is one character the audience feels an attachment to, it’s Katie. She’s a woman who genuinely tries to find an answer to where everything went wrong – to her marriage and teenage son, who seemingly wants distance. Every character besides Nicholas gets fullness to their problems, which makes the blunt and somewhat puzzling ending choice feels underearned. The resolutions to help Nicholas is shown to the audience, but the elders in his life take all routes to avoid choosing them.
The unfortunate reality of mental illness is that many signs go unnoticed by friends and family. Those who experience it often feel ashamed doing so and go through a hidden battle most never see. The Son doesn’t elect to be discreet with the warning lights to the point where you resent the characters in a television shouting way. A scene occurs where Peter and Beth get lost in dancing to Tom Jones while Nicholas sadly stares off into space. It’s not the first time you want to say “turn around,” and it happens far too often.