French playwright-turned-filmmaker Florian Zeller wrote a trilogy of psychodramas: The Father about an elderly man coping with dementia, whom Anthony Hopkins embodied in an Oscar-winning performance; The Mother about a woman afflicted by middle-age ennui; and The Son, focusing on the vulnerability of mental illness and trauma.
The Son revolves around an affluent family, headed by workaholic Peter Miller (Hugh Jackman) who is struggling, along with his ex-wife (Laura Dern), to help their volatile, self-destructive 17-year-old son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath), while grappling with an infant, a younger partner (Vanessa Kirby) and the psychological trauma inflicted by his tyrannical father (Anthony Hopkins.)
What’s most remarkable about The Son is witnessing Hugh Jackman’s remarkable versatility, his constant curiosity for reinvention. He’s starred in hit musicals (Broadway’s The Music Man, along with Les Miserables, The Greatest Showman, The Boy From Oz), played clawed Wolverine in X-Men comic-book movies, and delivered several convincing dramatic performances (Bad Education, Prisoners).
And Zeller captures the innate cleverness of a teenager, grappling with serious feelings of abandonment and betrayal, and his feral skill at finding each of his parents’ most vulnerable spot, thus hampering proper, if painful treatment.
Adapted into English by Christopher Hampton and Zeller, the setting for The Son has been transposed from Paris to New York City to accommodate Hugh Jackman and also to make the concept more accessible and universal – since the helplessness of adolescent depression is not restricted to any social class or nationality.
“I like to explore the things that are stuck in a corner of your soul,” Zeller explains. “That’s what cinema is about – to explore one’s pain. It is, to me, at least. It reconnects me to my sorrows and helps me to heal them.”
Problem is: the superficial, manipulative melodrama – a parental nightmare – with its heavily foreshadowed conclusion – turns out to be quite a slog to sit through.
On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, The Son is anguished 6, playing in theaters.