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‘The Son’

by Piers Marchant | January 20, 2023 at 1:31 a.m.
Somehow make a family? Politically ambitious Manhattan lawyer Peter (Hugh Jackman) has his life disrupted when his damaged ex-wife (Laura Dern) and depressed teenage son (Zen McGrath) re-enter his seemingly perfect life in Florian Zeller’s “The Son.”

Whiny, manipulative dreck from Florian Zeller, the director of the vastly superior "The Father" (and sort of interrelated), this melodrama goes from middling slow burn to bubbling boil over in short order.

As "The Son" begins, we meet Peter (Hugh Jackman), a wildly successful Manhattan lawyer, with political staff aspirations, a beautiful, young wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and a healthy infant son all living in a gorgeous high-rise apartment towering over the city. In his wake, however, there is the wreckage of his previous life, including his ex-wife, the still shattered Kate (Laura Dern), and depressed teenage son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath). When it turns out Nicholas has been ditching school for weeks, and growing ever more surly with his mother, a new arrangement is made for the boy, who moves in with his father and his newly ordained stepmother.

At first, things seem to be going better for Nicholas, who reports to his father his improving grades and social connections, even claiming a girlfriend at one point, which Peter, ever ready to accept his presumed superior parenting style as fact, more or less eats raw and with relish. When it turns out, however, that Nicholas has been lying the entire time and cutting himself regularly, Peter's faith in himself crumbles, and he is forced to contend with his ever-more wayward son, on a path toward something a good deal darker.

At one point, Peter travels to D.C. for work, and takes the opportunity to meet with his father (Anthony Hopkins), the same elderly man who will go on to succumb to dementia in Zeller's initial film of the series (we are working in herky-jerk chronology, obviously). His father assumes Peter's visit is about lording over him how much better and more present of a dad he's being with his kids, and he's not entirely wrong. Despite Peter's protestations, he clearly gets a massive ego boost from thinking his son is flourishing under his care.

Which is why, when things turn and go to hell, he has no answers other than to try and bully Nicholas into shape. In the film's key scene, Peter confronts his son with his lies, and runs from stern taskmaster ("Here's what's going to happen ..."), to helpless flack, to raging brute, shaking Nicholas and throwing him to the ground. Stricken and fearful, Nicholas runs out of the room, leaving Peter to contemplate, suddenly, all the ways he turns out to be exactly like his hated father as a parent.

Unfortunately, it is this moment in the film where we move from competent parental drama, to hokey, melodramatic sludge. Jackman, usually able to get both hands around his characters, falters under the pressure of the moment, and McGrath, shaky throughout as the woebegone, tormented Nicholas, resorts to snorts and wide-eyed emoting as if he were performing in a middle-school production.

From there, things only get worse. As the drama increases, and Nicholas is taken to a psych ward, we're treated to ever more poorly constructed scenes (a particularly bewildering turn from Hugh Quarshie as Nicholas' doctor is so disjointed and peculiar it feels like a practical joke on the parents), en route to a thoroughly ineffective denouement that seals the film's fate as if locked in an iron tomb. For parents of depressed children, this will feel almost insultingly misguided; for the rest of us, it's best to back slowly out of the theater and purge it from our memory banks.

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