‘The Son’ Is An Aimless Portrait Of A Kid With Terminally Bad Vibes

Back in 2018, the Twitter user SadiqoJN went viral with a tweet pondering, “Why do bash ‘dead-beat’ dads [sic] for not being there for their kids but we never question if the child has bad vibes? Or if they’re just unpleasant to be around?

Unclear whether the tweet was earnest or tongue-in-cheek (as is true of most tweets of the “today’s main character” variety), but it was one I couldn’t get out of my head while watching Hugh Jackman‘s latest movie, The Son, from director Florian Zeller. While apparently intended as a prequel for Zeller’s award-winning 2020 movie, The Father (more on that later), The Son plays disturbingly like an obtuse memoir written by a deadbeat dad who, try as he might, can’t figure out why his clinically depressed son’s vibes are so bad. This might be kind of a fun joke* if Zeller were aware of it, but as with the tweet, he offers no clues this might be the case. (*Don DeLillo’s fake sports memoir Amazons comes to mind)

Hugh Jackman plays Peter, a wealthy lawyer trying to start a new life with a new wife (Vanessa Kirby) and baby, though he’s having a hard time settling in, thanks to his 17-year-old bummer of a son from a previous marriage, Nicholas, played by Zen Miller. In one of the first scenes, Peter learns from his ex-wife, Kate, played by Laura Dern, that Nicholas hasn’t actually been going to school for the past month. Pressed by his father to explain why, Nicholas, with his constantly wet squint and oversized hair helmet, can only manage some inarticulate schpiel about life being just too painful and depressing for him to manage.

“I’m sad and I don’t know why” is the gist of it, and while that might be a common refrain among depressed people, taking it entirely at face value and simply repeating it over and over as The Son does is not a story. Rather than generate the sympathy it intends (?), The Son mostly conveys that depressed people are incapable of help and suggests that maybe it’s hopeless to even try.

Nicholas comes to live with Peter, and Peter tries to juggle the responsibilities of his new life with this dead-weight offspring, who seems to exist only to periodically pull Peter away from his latest responsibility before another tearful, inarticulate heart-to-heart in which Nicholas haltingly fails to explain his crippling depression in an occasionally slipping Australian accent (Oi, Daddo, oy’m depressed as, mate). The Son‘s utter lack of insight is matched only by its crushing repetitiveness.

Where Nicholas is an irredeemable drag, Peter is more like “relatable movie protagonist” as generated by AI — depicted as loving and earnest, but in only the most generic terms. “I love him so much, he’s my beautiful boy, he used to be so open to the world,” blah blah blah.

In fact, The Son plays so much like a self-exonerating memoir written by a dull dad that I assumed that’s what it was right up until I started googling it. If The Son were a “true story,” it would at least have some authoritative heft to it, much like the equally depressing though comparatively insightful Steve Carell vehicle Beautiful Boy (based on David Sheff’s memoir about his son’s drug addiction). You could assume there was insight here; the storyteller was just too oblivious to find it. Absent even that tenuous claim to authenticity, The Son is mostly just a very dull story about a terminally mopey kid who assumes the world would be better off without him and is eventually proved correct.

Peter has perhaps fallen short as a father, which is, again, suggested only in the most generic ways. I worked too much! I should’ve paid more attention! I should’ve tried harder to fix my marriage! Quite obviously, banal marriage troubles do not cause life-threatening depression in children, which makes Peter’s epiphanies feel exactly like the kind of counterfeit self-reflection passed off as introspection in inherently self-promoting memoirs. “Peter” even moonlights as political consultant and comes from a wealthy family. I can’t believe he’s a fictional creation and not an ex-Obama staffer, this movie an adaptation of his best-selling confessional! That would explain so much about why The Son feels like an obtuse puff piece for Peter. Even his ex-wife is constantly trying to get back with him!

In one scene, Peter goes to visit his own father, played by Anthony Hopkins, a blustering Logan Roy type who basically calls Peter a sniveler and tells him to “just get over it.” It’s hard to tell what the scene is meant to convey, other than The Son‘s tenuous thematic connection to The Father. Is Zeller attempting to create an expanded universe of awkwardly translated slogs?

Throughout, Nicholas mopes and Peter tries doggedly to fix him, wide-eyed and hopeful right up until the latest revelation that, actually, nothing has worked and Nicholas has taken yet another turn for the worse. All the while, you’re desperate for Nicholas to give us something, anything that would justify anyone having to care about him. There is, perhaps, some truthiness to Nicholas’s inability to communicate his own predicament. But to what end? To convey that depressed people are opaque and inherently unknowable? I sure feel bad about knowing this one.

‘The Son’ opens nationwide January 20th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.