Review: Hugh Jackman is the Only Good Thing About “The Son”

Despite the best of intentions and an exceptional Hugh Jackman performance, Florian Zeller’s The Son is in no way capable of depicting the nuance and realities of teenage mental illness.

Jackman stars as Peter Miller, a successful lawyer living with his new wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and their new baby. His ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) arrives and tells Peter their son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) has been skipping school and wishes to live with Peter and Beth. Everyone agrees, and Nicholas moves in.

Quickly, Peter realizes something with Nicholas is off. Peter is often at work, unable to see how Nicholas acts day-to-day. As Nicholas’ behavior becomes increasingly perilous, Peter reflects on the lessons from his own father (Anthony Hopkins) while trying to hold on to the memories of the little boy Nicholas used to be.

The film exists in this odd gray area between acting like a shiny Hollywood melodrama and a gritty, real-world mental health story. The balance is never there. 80% of the movie presents Nicholas’ issues as ones that need to be addressed in a straightforward, old-school way, while the other 20% shows Nicholas in a mental health crisis that requires hospitalization.

Nicholas isn’t taken seriously because of a multitude of silly plot mechanics, but also through parental malfeasance. The film attempts to show Peter in a constant state of worry for his son, but simultaneously neglecting him at every opportunity. Nicholas conveys to Peter on multiple occasions where his problems arise from, but Peter is unable or unwilling to accept the truth of the situation. Kate is no better. Nicholas being in crisis is more about how she feels and not about him.

Jackman is nothing short of brilliant. He conveys the love and affection of a father caught between the life he chose to leave and the new life he has created. His conflict is the only realistic driving force the film has. Dern is her usual dependable self, but she is sidelined for the majority of the film. Kirby is in a similar position. It feels like most of her part was edited out and missing big chunks. Hopkins is a breath of life, but he is in the film for no longer than five minutes.

McGrath is a big problem. I’m not going to pile on a young and inexperienced actor, but he is in no way ready for a role of this magnitude. The film lives and dies on caring for Nicholas and McGrath gives nothing to hold on to. Nothing he does gives the audience a rooting interest in his well-being. Even when he is allowed to be a bit charismatic, his performance immediately falls to pieces. The entire film hinges on wanting this kid to be well and McGrath is never able to get anywhere close to that feeling.

Zeller directs the film with pointless flashbacks to a trip with Peter and a young Nicholas. I’m sure it is supposed to have this deep impactful resonance, but it instead becomes an unnecessary detour into the past which in no way informs the present. I won’t spoil the ending, but the conclusion of the film is supposed to have some impact. Instead, I sat there bewildered at each and every decision, dumbfounded at what eventually unfolded.

There are plenty of effective films dealing with someone in a mental health crisis, but The Son is definitely not one of them. Outside of Hugh Jackman’s wonderful performance, there is little redeemable about the film.

The Son opens in select theaters on Friday, January 20th
Score: 2.0/5.0

Review: The Father
Review: Pieces of a Woman

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