Venice 2022: Florian Zeller's 'The Son' Wants Us to Talk About This
by Alex Billington
September 7, 2022
We need to talk about The Son. This film is definitely a conversation starter, even more so than The Father. After winning two Oscars for his dementia drama The Father, talented French director Florian Zeller has returned with his follow-up - a film titled The Son. It's part of Zeller's trilogy about family and fragility and our connections with each other when things go wrong & times get tough. The Son premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival as a highly anticipated competition film, and it's worthy of this debut. It may not be as masterful as The Father, but it is a compelling, devastating, seriously captivating drama. I believe Zeller's point is to make us discuss the film - the whole thing is "we need to talk about this" and for the characters, that's very hard to do unfortunately; but for viewers the emotions and twists in the story will make you talk. It's impossible to not have something to say after this - good or bad, sad or happy, as long as you're honest.
Directed by Florian Zeller, from a screenplay written by Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller (they both won a writing Oscar for The Father in 2020), adapted from Zeller's own play of the same name, the film is about a father attempting to reconnect with his son. Hugh Jackman stars as Peter, the father, a high class, well-paid lawyer working at a prestigious law firm in New York City. He is now married to Beth, played by Vanessa Kirby, for only a few years and together they a baby boy. He's always at work while she spends her time at home taking care of him. Peter's ex-wife is Kate, played by Laura Dern, and together they also have a teenage son named Nicholas, played by newcomer Zen McGrath. One day Nicholas tells his mother that he wants to see his dad and move in with him. While busy with work, Peter reluctantly agrees, setting in motion a chain of events that will change their lives forever. It's a hard-hitting story about parents and how it's important to stop & listen to your children when something is wrong and they need you more than ever.
Zeller's two feature films so far all have a very natural, intimate storytelling sense to them. They certainly feel like they come from the stage, which is exactly where they did originate, but the cinematic vibe is based around the performances and the way the story flows. Most conversations take place inside of apartments or in conference rooms, rarely on the street. Even when Nicholas goes for long, meandering walks around New York City, Peter never catches up with him outside for a talk or otherwise. The Son is not as immersive and mindful as The Father, it's captivating and heartfelt in its own way. The focus in this one is mental health - specifically with Nicholas' struggles and how his father is unable to help him. There's also a bit of context built in about how Peter's own father, played by Anthony Hopkins, is a careless narcissistic grump and sadly this is being passed down from generation to generation. As much as Peter wants to free himself from this burden and act differently, he just can't help himself. A cautionary tale for audiences to be mindful of.
Jackman, McGrath, and Dern are all excellent. The film gets intense at times showing how a bad father can screw up everything and what NOT to do as a parent – how they need to listen more, open up more. It's so hard to let people heal and let people be themselves. Even with a few flaws, even if you hate the film or don't like the story or where it goes, it's well-crafted and smart enough to create a conversation – to get us talking. Being upset about this scene or that moment is actually part of Zeller's plan as a filmmaker, encouraging us to examine our honest feelings. There's a key moment in this where anyone watching will feel overwhelmed by a decision that must be made. The film makes one choice, leading us down one path, but it's also worth discussing whether the other path would've worked out. I just hope The Son is a beneficial film, a guide for some folks, despite the heaviness of it all. That's the best result for this, that's the best the film can achieve.