“It is unfortunate that in most cases when the sins of the father fall on the son it is because unlike God, people refuse to forgive and forget and heap past wrongs upon innocent generations.” – Brushstrokes of a Gadfly
Florian Zeller’s first feature film, The Father, was met with rapturous reviews and ended up being nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Along with bringing Anthony Hopkins his second acting Oscar, Zeller won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Christopher Hampton). His sophomore effort, The Son, has not been met with quite the same enthusiasm, scoring a lowly 46% on Rotten Tomatoes through its first 35 reviews. Both films were adapted from stage plays written by Zeller, and deliver weighty, career-defining performances from his cast. So, what is The Son lacking that made The Father so successful?
Nicholas Miller (Zen McGrath) is a disgruntled and troubled teen who is growing up in a broken home and succumbing to depression. His mother, Kate (Laura Dern), struggles to connect with him and when she discovers he has been skipping school, Nicholas is sent to live with his father, Peter (Hugh Jackman). Peter accepts Nicholas into his home alongside his new partner, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and their infant son. Peter makes every attempt to care for Nicholas the way he wished his father would have cared for him, but his career and new family make things challenging as he tries to create a welcome space for his firstborn.
It might be assumed that McGrath’s Nicholas is the titular character, but there is more than one son at play here. Jackman’s Peter is stretched too thinly across all those who depend on him, and his own father – played wonderfully by Anthony Hopkins – was absent for most of his life. Despite Peter having every intention of being a better parent than the one he received, he finds himself headed down familiar territory and following the same patterns as his predecessor. Thus, the sins of the father are passed down to the son.
There are themes in The Son that are consistent with those in The Father – abandonment, family, people who are ill-equipped to handle demanding situations with loved ones – along with a few twists and turns that allow us to examine the what-could-have-been that comes at the end of the road not taken. The performances by Jackman and Dern are extraordinary, and if she hadn’t previously won the Oscar for Marriage Story, I would imagine she’d be more in play here. It might be the best performance of her career.
The film’s biggest detractor is, surprisingly, the script. The Son is a tad too melodramatic and conventional, and thus has a less staggering impact than Zeller’s first film. While The Father leaned on an intelligent audience, Zeller reversed course this go around and instead felt the need to spoon-feed his message in a way that numbs the story. We see all the signs unfolding while the characters miss them haphazardly.
Although this is a tad disappointing conclusion for such a highly anticipated film, I will say that as a father to two coming-of-age boys, I found a good deal to connect with in this movie. The incertitude that comes with being a father often overshadows the weight of disillusionment bequeathed upon our sons. When the story focuses here, you can see how the play would have been so successful. There is a qualified and substantial message in Zeller’s social commentary that might have resonated more fully if it weren’t so straightforward.