A man tries to reach his troubled son from a previous marriage, learning his own shortcomings as a father in the process.
A couple of years ago, Florian Zeller directed a film version of a play that he co-wrote with Christopher Hampton called The Father. Anthony Hopkins won the Academy Award for Best Actor in that. Now, once again, Zeller has adapted for the screen another of his plays with the same co-author, called The Son. Despite the apparent relationship between these titles, and the fact that Hopkins shows up in one of the scenes, this is not a sequel, but a completely different story. What they share, however, is a psychological approach to drama that takes nothing for granted, causing us to question things that we may tend to assume about ourselves.
Peter, a prominent New York business executive played by Hugh Jackman, has a lovely younger wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and a baby boy. One day his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) shows up unannounced at Peter and Beth’s apartment. She’s in a state of panic about their teenage son Nicholas. Nicholas has not been going to school—she’s learned that he’s been leaving in the morning, but only pretending to go. When questioned about this, he refuses to talk, and worse than that, he’s behaving in disturbing ways. Can Peter please talk to him and find out what’s wrong?
So Peter visits Kate’s house after work the next day. Nicholas (played by a fine young actor named Zen McGrath) is a diminutive, fearful, hyper-alert 15-year-old. When asked why he won’t go to school, he keeps saying “I don’t know.” The best he can explain is that he just can’t deal with life. Then he surprises Peter by asking if he can come to live with him. Of course the father feels responsibility and concern for his first son, and later asks Beth if it would be OK if he moved in. She has misgivings. But recognizing how important it is to her husband, she agrees to it.
What we find is that moving in with Dad doesn’t make Nicholas happy. He tries to do better, but the same patterns emerge. What we have here is a realistic kind of mystery, where various solutions are discussed, but we can’t easily get at the core of the problem. Nicholas does express some anger about his parents’ divorce, and about his father leaving him to make a new family. Also, Peter seems addicted to work; Beth keeps complaining that he’s always working. Rationally we might conclude that Nicholas’s father wasn’t there for him enough, and that the divorce rocked hiss world in a way his parents can’t fully appreciate, and it would seem that these are true in a way. But frustratingly, Peter still finds himself unable to connect to his son’s heart, instead wasting time and energy in attempts to manage the situation.
There’s no clear answer, but we get a clue when Peter visits his own father, played by Anthony Hopkins. It’s not merely that this man was never there for him. It’s that he can’t even see him as a person. His attitude is that Peter needs to get over it and stop blaming him for his problems. Now, Peter knows that his way of talking with his son is not as bad as this, but still carries a sense of judgment, a focus on doing instead of just who Nicholas is.
Hugh Jackman excels in the lead role because behind his competence we can see his vulnerability. The Son is a haunting experience because it doesn’t offer simple answers to the painful questions we’re forced to ask ourselves when our children or other loved ones are suffering. The wound is left open so that we can really feel it.