At the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) screening for Florian Zeller’s The Son, starring Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby and Zen McGrath, Jackman told the audience he hopes the story starts a conversation we “desperately” need to have around mental health.
While that’s certainly true, The Son misses the mark by leaning into the melodrama of the story, with an approach that seems more shallow than nuanced.
Peter (Jackman) is a busy, divorced lawyer, eying a move into politics. He now lives with his partner Beth (Kirby) and their newborn baby Theo. Peter’s ex-wife Kate (Dern) calls him to express her concern about their teenage son Nicholas (McGrath), who’s regularly skipping school. Peter is someone who thinks he can really fix anything, or most things, which leads to Nicholas moving in with him.
Peter is determined to get his son back on track, but as we see the evolution of Nicholas’ depression and self-harming, his father is looking at more band-aid solutions for his son. The story links this father-son relationship with Peter's own father, played by Anthony Hopkins, who admits he was completely an absentee dad.
“It was a way to open a conversation about something that I really wanted to talk about and it’s another pandemic, which is around us, which is teenage depression,” Zeller told the audience during the film’s screening at TIFF.
Coming after Zeller’s previous film, The Father, which tackled the story of a man with Alzheimer's with detail, honesty and depth, this film’s approach to the topic of teenage depression feels inauthentic. It's proof that just because a story is about mental health, doesn’t mean the narrative is constructive in the way it confronts the issue.
While The Son has a strong focus on this intergenerational narrative, Peter who struggled as the son of his father, now dealing with his son's struggles, it's Nicholas' storyline that really falls flat.
The way the story tackles a topic like suicide is dated, almost like you're watching an old made-for-TV movie. Some of the foreshadowing of future tragedy in the story feels manipulative and cruel in its approach. This is also driven by the fact that we don’t get to experience a lot of depth with the characters, aside from Peter.
The Son is compelling in the setup of approaching depression and mental health through the eyes of different generations, with different personal experiences, but the complexity of those experiences seems to be glossed over to reach an overwhelming conclusion.
While there’s no question that the actors in this film are exceptional, across the board, their performances are largely overshadowed by this weighty clutter in the story.
In 2023, I think it’s fair to expect that depression can be depicted in a way that doesn't feel reduced and repetitive.
The Son is in theatres across Canada Jan. 20