The Son [TIFF22 Review]

Some movies are bad. Others are irresponsible. But sometimes, a film comes along and is simply both things in one. Florian Zeller’s follow-up to his Academy Award Winning film The Father, The Son, is the perfect example of that. A movie so bafflingly bad not only in terms of execution but also down to its core subject and handling an issue that should never have seen the light of day.

A couple of years after his parents’ divorce, 17-year-old Nicholas (Zen McGrath) no longer feels he can stay with his mother, Kate (Laura Dern). He moves in with his father, Peter (Hugh Jackman) and Peter’s new partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby). Juggling work, his and Beth’s new baby, and the offer of his dream job in Washington, Peter tries to care for Nicholas as he wishes his father had cared for him. But by reaching for the past to correct its mistakes, he loses sight of how to hold onto Nicholas in the present.

After his incredible debut with The Father, there was much to look forward to in this follow-up. From the acting to the script, production design and even editing, The Father was just incredible, so there was a lot of anticipation with The Son. Except, this film is nothing like the one before. It feels like two different directors, as if someone else had written and directed this film. Except, it is still the same person.

There isn’t an original bone in this feature. The Son cuts from scene to scene without any of the flairs from the previous film. There is just nothing original in this film. The Father used his production design and camera movements to tell its story, setting it apart, while The Son barely tried. This film cuts from scene to scene without a throughline, moving on as soon as possible. At the core of it all, this is the fault of a script that just feels rushed and underdeveloped.

The script is bafflingly bad, and the dialogue is entirely overstuffed; the dialogue is worded so that you can’t help but wonder if more than one pass was done. This begs the question, was the original play the film is adapted from similar to this? If so, then the problem goes more profound, and it is a wonder how this was allowed to be adapted, but also, was Zeller simply rushed into making this spiritual sequel after the success of The Father?

Pairing that terrible script with some of the worst actings this year, you create a recipe for disaster. While Vanessa Kirby leaves the film pretty unscathed, it is impossible to say the same for the rest. Laura Dern and Hugh Jackman are baffling in some of their choices, and they phone it in. The worst acting belongs to Zen McGrath, who is laughingly bad. It is a casting choice that you can’t help but wonder what Zeller saw in the young actor and the direction given to him. 

But the film’s true crime belongs to how it handles the sensitive subject matter. Talking about suicide in movies isn’t new, but doing it in such an irresponsible matter is. The film is crafted so that they want you to emphasize with the parents and see that they are way over their heads and have no idea how to deal with their teenager. The problem is the way the film goes about it. Multiple times during the movie, Nicholas tells his parents that he does not want to live; he has numerous signs that he will hurt himself. Yet, the parents deny this; only Vanessa Kirby’s Beth considers that Nicholas needs help. These parents are irresponsible, yet the film refuses to acknowledge this, wanting us to feel bad for them when they clearly could have saved their son.

This sense of manipulation looms over the film the whole time, trying to get an emotional response out of the audience, except it is clear that these parents were given tools and resources but simply ignored them. The treatment of the child who is suicidal is baffling; multiple times, we have characters referring to him as evil or not right in the mind, and yet, never does anyone try to seek him more help than just a therapist that he doesn’t seem to be seeing. 

Some moments are frustrating to watch, not only as an audience member but as someone who has struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. The film should have handled the subject better; this was a film that seemed to want the audience to sympathize with the parents instead of the straightforward, distressed child who is left to his own devices. It’s a film that seems to want to portray the parents as the heroes when in reality, they fail at every turn in this film, and the child is left to be nothing more than a bad PSA for what depression is.

It’s careless and should have been handled with better care. The Son is baffling as a feature is a complete miss after what was a promising first feature. This film feels rushed and without purpose while also being slow and without a good idea of how to handle a subject that deserves a lot of care and thought.

If you liked The Father, do not expect this feature to bring you the same feeling. Instead, it will bring you frustration and disbelief that this film was allowed to exist.