Playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and director Florian Zeller blew me away with his 2020 directorial debut, “The Father”. The film, an adaptation of his own 2012 play of the same name, was a heart-wrenching story of an elderly Welsh man suffering from dementia. The film’s lead performance earned Anthony Hopkins his second Best Actor Academy Award which was one of the most deserving Oscar wins in recent years. So naturally I was excited for what Zeller would do next.
His sophomore feature is “The Son”, another deeply human drama yet again based on his own stage play of the same name, this one from 2018. The film sees Zeller exploring painfully real subject matter that doesn’t make for the most comfortable viewing. But much like its predecessor, “The Son” keeps its characters and its story grounded in such fashion that it’s hard to turn away. Overall it may not be as seamless or as focused as “The Father”. But the script (co-written by Zeller and Christopher Hampton), combined with some truly absorbing performances, vividly brings this character-driven story to life and keeps us glued to every meaningful exchange.
Where as “The Father” dealt with an octogenarian with dementia, “The Son” revolves around a teenager with clinical depression. But it’s just as much about a broken family and a man confronted with his own failures as a father. Zeller takes a deep look at depression, from the warning signs to the near unexplainable nature of the pain to its crushing effects. But it’s seen mostly through the eyes of a well-meaning dad who struggles to grasp his son’s mental illness while coming to grips with how his own past actions might have contributed to it.
For Peter (a devastating Hugh Jackman), things couldn’t be better. He’s a successful attorney working for a big New York City law firm, and he’s just been offered a prominent role in a Delaware senator’s upcoming campaign. At home, he and his second wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby) just had a healthy baby boy. But Peter’s seemingly blissful life is shaken when his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern) unexpectedly shows up at his door and tells him that she’s concerned about their 17-year-old son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath). She mentions his anger, detachment, and the fact that he’s been skipping school for nearly a month.
The next day, Peter stops by Kate’s to see Nicholas. Their conversation stalls mainly because Peter believes his son is simply going through a phase, while Nicholas knows he can’t explain his feelings in a way his father would understand. It ends with Nicholas asking if he can come live with Peter and Beth. Knowing it’s the right thing to do (and possibly out of a sense of guilt), Peter agrees. Beth has concerns, but she stands by her husband.
To Peter’s credit, he loves Nicholas and truly wants what’s best for him. But his blind optimism keeps him from truly seeing his son’s condition. In Peter’s mind, all Nicholas needs is a change of scene – a new school, some new friends, and everything will be alright. Peter even makes an effort to be around more for Nicholas, like a good dad should. It’s all sincere and well-intended, though slightly self-serving. Peter also wants to prove to himself that he’s better than his own vain and coldhearted father (played in one profoundly revealing scene by the indelible Anthony Hopkins).
To no surprise, Peter’s efforts only exacerbate the problem. He finds himself routinely suggesting the wrong thing or responding the wrong way. Communication breaks down, deep-seated pain comes to light, animosity and resentment set in. Through it all Zeller maintains a tight rein, and his stagecraft proves to be an asset. He’s very good at fleshing out characters through rich organic dialogue. And in doing so, his cast is given some strong material to work with. Jackman benefits most and gives what may be the best performance of his career. Kirby is excellent as is Dern. Unfortunately the latter disappears for much of the second half which is a shame considering Kate offers a fascinating angle to the story. McGrath is shakier and can’t quite match his seasoned co-stars. He especially struggles in the more emotionally demanding scenes.
In “The Father”, Zeller cleverly used point-of-view to catch us off-guard and pull us into the failing mind of his main character. Here his storytelling is more streamlined and straightforward. But to be honest, that’s exactly what material like this needs. There is a questionable choice at the end that means well but doesn’t really work. Outside of that one noticeable stumble, the storytelling is top-notch, the character work is dynamic, and the handling of subject matter is admirable. It all works to make “The Son” a worthwhile follow up to “The Father” and further establishes Florian Zeller as one of the most exciting dramatic filmmakers of this new batch. I can’t wait to see what he does next. “The Son” opens November 25th in Los Angeles and New York.