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#TIFF22 Review: The Son (Gala Presentations)

September 15, 2022

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to 18th.

Florian Zeller’s The Father was an impeccably structured and brilliantly acted film adapted from his own stage play that took us inside the mind of a man with dementia. Which is why Zeller’s follow-up film The Son, adapted from the second in his unofficial trilogy of plays about family, feels like a letdown. Where as The Father offered a nuanced and believable portrait of someone living with dementia, The Son feels frustratingly surface-level in its treatment of teen mental illness.

Peter (Hugh Jackman) is a businessman who lives with his new wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and their newborn child in New York. But things change when Peter’s ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) shows up and informs him that their adolescent son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) has only been pretending to go to school for the past month and is in severe mental distress. Realizing that Nicholas has completely tapped out of the world, Peter agrees to move him in, believing that he can help.

Jackman is good in the film, though has also been better (namely in Prisoners), while Dern doesn’t have much room for subtlety in a somewhat thankless role as the overburdened mother. Anthony Hopkins, who won an Oscar for The Father, is given a single scene as Peter’s dad, and he is obviously very good in the role which Zeller wrote specifically for the film adaptation. But his character feels like he should have either been fleshed out further or didn’t need to be shown at all.

More crucially, McGrath’s performance as the titular son never really clicked with me. It’s obviously a challenging role for a young actor to take on, but McGrath is miscast and never feels fully convincing as a character experiencing this level of depression and mental illness, and the believability of his character is detrimental to the story’s success. Still, it would be unfair to pin all of the blame for the film’s failings on its young star.

The material maintains a stagey feel, not helped by Ben Smithard’s bland cinematography and uninspired compositions. Zeller adds in flashbacks to a day at the beach that feel unneeded and actually distract from the main story, and keep the film going on far longer than it needs to at two hours, with a final stretch that will either work for you or feel borderline offensive at how it tries to wring tears from the audience. I was in the latter camp.

The result is an almost shamelessly manipulative melodrama that is somewhat hard to believe is even from the same director as The Father. The crux of the film is a father struggling to accept that his son is not okay, and it could have made for a powerful examination of parent-child relationships. But the film’s simplistic writing and overwrought, soapy execution buries any real emotion, and I’m sorry to report that The Son just never fully worked for me.

Public Screenings:

Monday, September 12th – 9:00 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Tuesday, September 13th – 12:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

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