Movie Review: Fathers and Mothers struggle with the issues of “The Son”

Parenting is not for the faint-hearted or the disengaged, something every generation seems to have to figure out for itself. You don’t “need a license” to do it, the old joke goes, and even that might not help.

The new twist on that truism is that it’s not something you can assume you’re an expert in by virtue of DNA. You can be engaged and loving and nurturing and still screw up. You can be smart and/or educated and still be lost when you’re confronted by real issues beyond your understanding.

Measles is making a comeback, thanks to parents who “know better” than medical experts. COVID is doing a number on unvaccinated kids. And parents who now assume they know better than educators what their child needs to learn have been egged into mortally wounding public education as they rage at a changing psychological and social landscape they’ve been too distracted to notice and too narrow-minded to bother to understand.

That’s the climate that “The Son” arrives in. The latest from French playwright/filmmaker Florian Zeller and screenwriter Christopher Hampton — who gave us “The Father,” a guilt-ridden “fading memory play” — is a beautifully-acted but curiously-conjured slow-motion train wreck. Four different parents confront two different sons making cries for help and are both helpless in responding, and oddly removed from the tragedy they see unfolding right in front of their eyes.

It’s not that they don’t care. It’s that none of them — from two different generations — can separate what they believe and what they think they know about parenting from the facts staring them in the face.

Hugh Jackman plays a 50something, politically-connected New York lawyer with a much younger wife (Vanessa Kirby) and new baby in the house.

Of course this is Peter’s second-marriage. We don’t need the “We need to talk” phone call from the ex (Laura Dern) to figure that out. And that “need to talk” is also self-explanatory.

Their teenage son (Zen McGrath) has skipped school for the past month. Pricey and private and Manhattan-based doesn’t mean administrators will let you know right away that a kid is going off the rails.

That’s one of the “curious” plot contrivances that Zeller and Hampton build into their narrative, the convenient failures of institutional early warning systems and the inadequate responses of self-involved parents who have to deal with the emerging crisis.

Peter may be about to join a senator’s campaign staff in Washington. Ex-wife Kate has her own job and career that may have caused her to take her eye off the ball, something she seems to worriedly accept.

But Nicholas has gotten out of hand, and divorced or not, they’re going to have to respond in a united and best-information-available responsible way.

Each parent wears the guilt of “all that’s happened.” New wife and new life or not, Peter has to man up.

“I can’t pretend I’m not responsible for this situation.”

Their efforts to intervene in the life and direction of their aimless, silent and sullen child is up against the simplest pitfall imaginable. He can’t articulate what’s happened or what’s happening to him. He can no longer bring himself to return Mom’s “Love you” as he departs for the school he isn’t actually attending, can’t justify his behavior and can’t be relied on to provide his own solutions.

“It’s life. It’s…weighing me down.” Please Dad, let me move in with YOU.

This dynamic’s version of “tough love” comes from new-mom/second wife Beth, who has enough remove from the situation to ask blunt, direction questions of a kid who’s learned to deflect and guilt trip his mother and father about what ended their marriage and their ignorance over what that’s done to him.

He’s listless and depressed and can’t make himself go to school.

“Are you in pain? Are you unhappy? WHY are you unhappy?”

Beth gets nothing for her trouble but comeback questions about why she pursued his then-married father.

As Peter also stares-down the guilt which seems the kid’s only response to “why” this is happening, he finds himself reconsidering life choices and professional commitments in the face of what he sees as his real duty, something reinforced by a visit to his patrician, iceberg of a father. Paterfamilias is played by Anthony Hopkins in a steely single scene that will chill you to the marrow. Peter’s rich, power-brokering father was never there for his mother of himself. Can Peter interrupt that pattern of privileged neglect?

I think Zeller and Hampton’s most relatable scenes and situations are the ones they create that give the ever-upbeat Peter, and the viewer, cause for his sugar-coated optimism, and offer Kate and Beth hope.

Peter gets involved. They get the kid to smile. A single normal “happy” moment or two — teaching the boy to dance like Hugh Jackman imitating a guy who imitates Tom Jones — gives everybody that feeling that “this will blow over” and no further effort or alarm is necessary.

And when that optimism seems premature, Peter engages with the child with what we can see is firm and blunt laying-down-the-law, but backed by fatherly empathy.

The flashbacks to a memorable family vacation let him believe he was doing what he could to cajole a happy but fragile and fearful child’s development, even as we wonder what was happening in the marriage at that time.

Generations of experts and books and TV and film parenting have taught us “This is how you face that.” But a boy who cuts himself? A kid who refuses to answer a direct question about where he’s been? A child who lies about the life you’re constantly asking him about? What do you do with that?

I found “The Son” both relatable and a touch maddening as characters underreact to the warning bells and ignore the too-obvious foreshadowing engineered into the screenplay.

But there’s no quibbling with the performances, with Oscar winners Dern and Hopkins fleshing out fully-formed characters in limited screen time, and Jackman showing us a stunned, distracted and desperate man unused to any of those emotions, straining to do the right thing, but discovering that good intent, prescribed responses and earnestly caring are not enough.

Jackman gives a great performance at the center of a frustrating film that never quite lets us hope that anyone involved will find answers, and never lets its characters, or the viewer off the hook even if they do.

Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content involving suicide, and strong language.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath and Anthony Hopkins.

Credits: Directed by Florian Zeller, scripted by Christopher Hampton based on the play by Florian Zeller, based on their play. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 2:03

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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