The Son Review

PLOT: A man (Hugh Jackman) and his ex-wife (Laura Dern) try desperately to help their teenage son (Zen McGrath), who suffers from crippling depression.

REVIEW: This year’s TIFF has not been short on devastating dramas, but the more upsetting a film is, the more you can expect a certain amount of backlash. Perhaps that explains why Florian Zeller’s The Son saw a surprising amount of vitriol towards it following its TIFF screenings, with words like “manipulative” and “horrifying” showing up in many write-ups. Here’s another word that not enough people included in their reviews – real.

The Son tackles the unpleasant but very real topic of teen depression and self-harm. The film, a kind of companion piece to Zeller’s The Father, follows Peter (Hugh Jackman), a high-powered businessman on the verge of a major coup, when asked to aid a politician on his run in Washington. All seems to be going well, with him having a beautiful wife (Vanessa Kirby) and a baby. But, he also has another family he left some years back, and while he’s always tried to stay involved in his son’s life, he carries a degree of guilt for not always being there. When his ex arrives at his apartment to tell him their son has been skipping school and cutting himself, he invites the boy to move in with him, only to realize before long that his son suffers from crippling depression.

Perhaps one of the things that’s unnerving people about The Son is it shows that depression is a difficult thing to fight. You can be a great father and mother, as Jackman and Dern are here, and throw tons of money at treating the problem, but you might not always succeed.

Zen McGrath gives a haunting performance as Nicholas. A generally nice boy, he resents his dad and new wife a bit, but they’re not the cause of his depression, and he doesn’t particularly blame them. As he tells his father, life is simply weighing him down, and he can’t explain why he feels the way he does. If you’ve ever suffered from depression, his portrayal will hit close to home in many ways, particularly in the lighter moments, such as when he has an impromptu dance session with his dad and stepmother. One moment, he’s having a lovely time, and the next is dead behind the eyes.

Zeller brings a great deal of empathy and compassion to the film, but he doesn’t spare you the misery Nicholas feels or how it rips apart his parents, mainly, as depicted here, his father.

Jackman has rarely been better, with him playing an essentially happy-go-lucky guy, a charmer who simply isn’t qualified to deal with his son’s condition. He’s used to being able to persuade or charm people, but he can’t do a thing with Nicholas, and he knows it. We’ve never seen him as vulnerable as he is here, with a standout scene being a chilling moment where he visits his estranged father, played by Anthony Hopkins in a cameo. Initially, the two seem friendly until Jackman starts to confide in his father, and the latter sees it as an attack on him, with him icing his son out in a particularly cold-blooded and cruel way. We see at this moment what a lousy father is, and it’s a reminder from Zeller (who adapted his play with Christopher Hampton) to the audience that regardless of what may have happened in his marriage, Peter is far from a bad father.

Indeed, Dern’s Kate gets the same treatment. We can tell she’s brokenhearted by the fact that Jackman left her, but she doesn’t weaponize that and can put these feelings aside to deal with their son. Ditto Vanessa Kirby as the compassionate stepmother. In a way, her part is the most challenging as she has to convey the frustration of the fact that she has her own child to raise and can’t allow what’s going on with Nicholas to affect her too profoundly, as she has her own very real priorities. She has to protect herself and her child, but you also get the sense that she has a lot of empathy for Peter and compassion for Nicholas. That’s the beauty of The Son, nobody in this movie has purely bad intentions (other than Hopkins – although it’s suggested that he isn’t well), but in the end, love isn’t always enough to save someone.

Zeller has made an elegant film, with a terrific score by Hans Zimmer, in a rare stab at drama for the legendary composer. While a companion piece to The Father, the film isn’t a sequel as other reports have suggested, although it easily could be. It’s not as radical as The Father, which took you inside the mind of a man grappling with dementia. The style is more conventional here, but it suits the material. Zeller does make one serious misstep at the end, with a fantasy sequence leaving a bad taste in my mouth (along with many other critics, it seems – who can’t get past it), and its excision would better serve the film. Even still, I found The Son to be a moving film, and while the conclusion is upsetting, it’s supposed to be, with a final line uttered over and over by Kirby’s character that I found haunting but true.

TIFF 2022



About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.