The Son review: a portrait of mental health and parental struggles

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Director Florian Zeller tackles the topic of mental health in The Son, an assured follow-up to his debut The Father – here’s our review.

As if dealing with dementia in his debut outing The Father wasn’t enough, playwright and theatre director Florian Zeller has returned to family life – focusing on mental health, guilt and parental problems for his second film, The Son

It’s testament to Zeller’s deft and skillful touch, both in adapting his play for the screen and as a fledgling film director notably working with equally adept actors, that The Son succeeds in spades and marks him out as a talented and powerful filmmaker. There’s no “difficult second album” syndrome for his sophomore feature and, like its predecessor, this is award-friendly fare that will attract plenty of attention come statuette season. 

While it’s ostensibly titled The Son, and Zen McGrath gives a strong performance as the teen who battles with his parents’ divorce and arrival of a newborn half-brother, it’s really about two sons, with Hugh Jackman the other offspring. His relationship with his own son suffers from the distance between him and his callous father, deliciously played by Anthony Hopkins in a scene-stealing role. 

And it’s about mothers too – Laura Dern as Kate, the wronged wife, and Vanessa Kirby as Beth, the other woman who now has a baby with her lover turned partner Peter. Both convey the difficulties in parenting, the frustrations and helplessness of not knowing what to do and the guilt of their own actions, with equal aplomb. 

The film follows son Nicholas who, after becoming unspeakably depressed and sullen with his mother after his father’s departure, ends up moving out from her house and in with his dad and his new family. All the while he’s suffering, but few can talk to him. 

All the performances – and the big name cast’s eagerness to work with Zeller – signify that this is a director who can get the best out of his cast. Heck, he even manages to coax a marvellous performance from a therapist’s dog (not a therapy dog), a moment of genuine tension-breaking laughs. 

And with an Oscar already under his belt, along with a host of other awards, it further marks Zeller down as a director and writer worth watching. It might not be as entirely successful as his debut, but it’s an assured second feature. 

He shows the chaos in the life of Nicholas and those around him by employing increasingly chaotic camera work – shaky rather than steady – another smart touch that shows how in tune he is with his characters and subject matter.

As any parent knows – and equally any teenager – what it ultimately shows is that no-one has a clue what they’re doing as a parent. And perhaps, the most important thing is to listen, rather than point the finger. 

The Son is in cinemas on 17th February.

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