When I saw His father back in 2020, I was surprised. The film, about a man named Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) suffering from Alzheimer’s, and his strained relationship with his daughter (Olivia Colman), is an authentic portrayal of what it is like to overcome a difficult disease. Movies about Alzheimer’s tend to focus on the perspective of a sufferer, but His father dare to count how the people around him also suffer.
The film is the acting debut of writer-director Florian Zeller, who adapted his own play to great effect. The film went on to earn six Oscar nominations, winning two each for Best Screenplay, one for Best Actor (for Hopkins). It’s an interesting haul for a first film—but not surprising, given how the film explores Anthony’s interiority. Through his masterful handling of diegetic space and storytelling, Zeller immediately reached the top of my radar, and I await his next project with great anticipation.
That next project is here—and it is son, also based on one of Zeller’s plays. (Holy Spirit not yet in the works, but I chose to hold out hope.) The film follows Nicholas (Zen McGrath), a 17-year-old who feels like he can’t live with his mother Kate (Laura Dern) anymore. He seeks to escape from his inner turmoil by moving to his father Peter (Hugh Jackman), a successful businessman, Peter’s new partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and their baby son. But Beth meets Nicholas with trepidation, and Peter receives a major new job opportunity, so he barely gives his son time during the day.
But Peter should start paying attention, because Nicholas is in crisis. Turns out he didn’t go to school in a month, something that stuns both Kate and Peter. In the moment between Nicholas and his father, he explained his pain, saying “I don’t know what happened to me.” It was clear that the son needed help that no one else could provide—or rather, it was clear to everyone who watched the film, but this obvious fact seemed to alienate both parents for some time.
It hurts me to say that son not just disappointing follow-up to His father. It’s also a terrible, irresponsible movie. The real problem is the gross misunderstanding of mental illness: like every line is read straight from a pamphlet called “How not talk about mental health. All of this comes to fruition at the very end of the film. If for some reason you still want to see son– And I will not blame you; I’m glad it’s time to go, because there are a lot of spoilers coming your way. (I’m not sure you can spoil a movie like that sonwho telegraphs his every move, but hey, I can understand not wanting to know the end before you see it.)
Things get worse throughout the movie—for Nicholas, for his parents, and frankly, for everyone watching—and every time it seems as if things are going to get better, they end up getting worse. In one moment, Nicholas happily danced with his father and Beth, and a few seconds later, Peter and Beth hugged and completely forgot that Nicholas was even there. Another scene finds Nicholas offering to babysit his half-brother’s baby, only for Beth to balk at the “weird” idea of Nicholas taking care of her child. It’s a constant—and I really do mean constant—cycle of raising Nicholas and letting him make the film’s conclusion more obvious.
After all the mistakes and slights his parents made that would feel right at home in the special after-school, Nicholas finally tried to take his own life. Fortunately he was found in time, and Nicholas’ parents decided to put him in intensive psychiatric care. Well, it’s not so much that they decide to get Nicholas the help he needs; Moreover, the doctor forced their hand to do it, and they agreed.
Finally, there was a sense of peace. It feels like, with Nicholas away in treatment, Kate, Peter, and Beth can finally live their lives without the burden of their depressed son. It’s a rather terrifying sentiment, and my skin crawls even writing those words. fire son is not a masterclass in sentimentality and very clear understanding. Self-interest and overbearing score bludgeons you above the head, making it difficult to ever come across as sincere. (Hans Zimmer, You betrayed me.) What the movie really seems to say is that without problems like Nicholas (ugh), these people can win in their lives (ick).
The most pivotal scene comes after this when Kate and Peter meet with the doctor who takes care of Nicholas’. He was stern but professional, reminding them that upon brief re-introduction to his son, he would immediately beg and plead to be taken home. The doctor explained that he had seen this happen many times, and it was important for the patient to remain in hospital care. The doctor could not have been more clear: let Nicholas go home, and it is almost certain that he will try to kill himself again.
What followed was a lot of screaming and crying, as Nicholas did what any doctor would do. It can (and is true must) to be an emotional scene, but it all feels so good. The film has made it clear that it doesn’t care about Nicholas, and frankly, neither do his parents. They think that they do, but they are so invested in themselves and their own lives that they see right past him. It’s disingenuous for Nicholas to plead with people who look completely devastated; This is deeply distasteful and upsetting, considering that we have watched the film torturing him with no repercussions. To make matters worse, it’s clear that what we’re watching is acting, in many ways.
In the end, Kate and Peter did the right thing: They listened to the doctor and refused to take Nicholas home. It was a difficult decision for the parents, but they made it, because they knew he would be better off in the long run. Or so you thought. Moments later, they sit in the car on the way home, and ridiculous music hits as they share a glance that tells you everything you need to know-these irresponsible people will remain irresponsible.
Shortly after, Nicholas returned home with his parents. Beth had taken the baby to visit her parents, so it was just Kate, Peter, and Nicholas again, the family unit she had longed for but no longer existed. There is a moment of serenity when the three talk to each other, and Nicholas gives an extended monologue about how he loves his family. It should feel moving, but the movie does nothing to show that it cares about Nicholas, so it’s one of the many moments to remind you that son based on the play.
Literally only a few moments after his parents told him they shouldn’t let him out of their sight, Nicholas went off alone to take a shower, which he seemed to do very well and didn’t really care about them. It’s a red flag as big as North America, but Kate and Peter are too invested in themselves, and each other, to notice. There was an eerie silence as the two talked about a family going to a movie, but it was quickly shattered by a sudden burst of gunfire.
I’m going to back up for a second. Peter has a gun in his apartment that was a gift from his father. The fact that he never thought to take the gun out of the house that he brought back the risky, suicidal child tells you all you need to know. Finally, all son‘s worst Chekhovian instinct has come to fruition.
You’d think that’s where the film would end, but you’d be wrong. We then move to the future, several years later, where Peter has a long conversation with Nicholas. Nicholas talks about how happy he is now—he found the love of his life and moved to Toronto, which makes him happier than New York City ever could. (As a Canadian, this is the only thing that rings true in the whole movie. Sorry.) Nicholas has even written a book, which he dedicates to his father.
“Society has evolved much longer than Putra’s understanding of mental health.“
This is, of course, a complete fantasy. Nicholas is dead, and no amount of well-wishing can bring him back. In the real world, Peter is sitting absent, because Beth comes to comfort him. son has become so completely committed to insensitivity and tone-deafness that the man who neglected his son’s endless pleas for help, even taking them as a sort of personal affront, would think that his son would ever dedicate a book to him. This moment completely robs Nicholas of any agency, making everything about Peter and his son’s mental illness experience. Peter is the one who really had to suffer, after all, having a depressed son. This is humiliating.
The root of the problem is that the movie, like Kate and Peter, continues to neglect Nicholas. son much more invested in his parents-especially Peter and Beth-and how they continue to fail their son by not understanding him, ignoring him, or blaming him for his own sadness, without holding them accountable for these actions. In a very heated moment (judging by the context, it’s supposed to be very dramatic with a capital D) Peter yells at Nicholas, “When you hurt yourself, it’s like you’re doing it to me.” Seriously. Maybe this would have flown five or even 10 years ago, but the society has developed a long time ago sonunderstanding mental health.
son can be an effective showcase of how insensitivity and lack of understanding can lead to avoidable tragedies. Maybe it should be like that. Instead, Florian Zeller forces us to sit through this plodding, grotesque, emotionally taxing, cruel story. This is a movie with such self-serving importance that it is completely forgotten the most important character, and he is right in the title. son is a shame, an affront to people suffering from mental health problems, and a dramatically inept story that relies on overwhelming musical cues, dull staging, and wooden acting to get a comically out-of-date script and any semblance of life. This is the worst movie, and the worst ending, of 2022.