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The Son review – insultingly unconvincing depression melodrama

Florian Zeller takes a baffling, colossal step backwards in a follow-up to The Father that has nothing to say and still says it badly

One of the most heinous things a Very Bad Film can do is attempt to hide behind a claim of “importance” – that its quality is less important than the fact it exists and is saying/representing something or someone that needs to be said/represented right now. This is a crime of which Florian Zeller’s The Son is always guilty, hanging a terrible story on a myopic and frankly insulting discussion of mental health. For Zeller, it’s a colossal and baffling step backwards from his debut The Father, which was sharp and empathetic in its treatment of dementia, not to mention stylistically ingenious and perfectly acted. The Son is none of these things.

Trading in dementia for depression, Zeller and co-writer Christopher Hampton, again adapting one of Zeller’s own stage plays, introduce us to the dysfunctional Miller family in New York. Dad Peter (Hugh Jackman) is a high-flying attorney with a new, younger wife called Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and new baby son, while his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) languishes in a disappointing life Peter left behind. Bringing chaos to both of their worlds is their 17-year-old son Nicholas (relative newcomer Zen McGrath), who is suffering with a bout of powerful depression that has manifested in him skipping school for a full month.

Thinking a change of scene might do him good, Peter brings Nicholas into the fancy exposed-brick apartment he shares with Beth, but things deteriorate quickly, the steadfastly rational and literal Peter unable to understand why his son feels the way he feels or does the things he does. Nicholas goes downhill in a series of deeply predictable ways, clashing with everyone in his family on his way.

Though there is nothing that particularly works in The Son, the fundamental problem is the woeful writing. The Millers never convince as a family unit, Peter’s talks with Nicholas ringing especially untrue – it feels a weird thing to complain about, but no-one in either home has any pet names or even shortened names for one another, making the homes feel as formal and sterile as Peter’s fancy law firm. Characters’ decisions never make sense, all building to a disastrous final act that is unforgivably cruel and stupid.

Of the cast, Kirby gets away less scathed than the others, thanks in part to Beth feeling like the only real human in the whole film. Kate is feebleness personified, Peter is deluded and unbelievably out of touch, while Nicholas is treated less like a sick kid than an active villain, a dead-eyed bomb to be defused. It’s one of the most forgettable performances of Dern’s career and Jackman is completely outmatched by the weight and clunkiness of the material, while what should be a star-making turn for McGrath is instead perhaps an early career-killer.

Whether it’s down to poor direction or a simple lack of talent, he’s abominable, somehow only getting worse as the story goes on. Every line is delivered in a monotone and instead of misery or pain he just exudes creepiness – the moments where he interacts with baby Theo are profoundly uncomfortable and you generally wish he’d leave the screen as soon as he enters the frame. It feels a little mean-spirited to zero in on McGrath, the cast’s youngest member, like this, but this performance is the keystone on which the success of The Son depends, and it just crumbles.

Zeller’s final disappointment trick is his visual direction. Where The Father made expert use of the subtly shifting geography of Anthony Hopkins’ (who gives the only good performance here in a brief but venomous cameo) flat and shifted through time in an effectively distressing way, there’s no such formal ambition here. Floaty camerawork detracts from any attempts to create a real atmosphere and there are a couple of shots that are unintentionally hilarious, in keeping with the clanging lack of subtlety elsewhere.

As a follow-up to The Father, “disappointing” really doesn’t cover the breadth of The Son’s failures. This is easily one of the worst films of the year even before it attempts to offer a muddled-at-best insight into a real and common societal concern. Whether it’s discussing depression, self-harm, or parent-induced trauma, there’s always another film that’s done it much better, leaving behind a husk of a script that defeats its already underwhelming cast at every turn.

The Son was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 17 February.

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