Love is Not Always Enough in ‘The Son’

In writer and director Florian Zeller’s The Son, Hugh Jackman plays a high-powered attorney Peter Miller, whose troubled 17-year-old son Nicholas is played by Zen McGrath. Nicholas tearfully tells Dad, “I think I’m going crazy.” That authentically and familiarly lands. Nicholas suffers from acute clinical depression. I’ve uttered those words before in my space. I’ve worked with therapist Lance Miller to love, heal, and forgive me. I work on myself.

In The Son, Zeller adapted his original play with screenwriter Christopher Hampton. Although, at times, the narrative is blunt force and heavy-handed, The Son authentically tells the story of depression and its aftermath in a kind human voice. Hugh Jackman is powerful and vulnerable as the father, Peter. Zen McGrath bravely reveals Nicholas’s fears. Many families undertake Peter and Nicholas’s journey. Florian Zeller’s The Son is a compassionate, uncompromising look at the choices we make and the actions we take.

Laura Dern plays Kate, Nicholas’s mother and Peter’s ex-wife. Peter left Kate and Nicholas to marry Beth, played by strong Vanessa Kirby, whom he fell in love with while he was married to Kate. Peter and Beth have an infant son. When Peter abandoned Kate and Nicholas, that deeply wounded her. Nicholas never forgave Peter for leaving and hurting his Mom. Isolated loner Nicholas has trouble in school. Kate can no longer care for her son. Nicholas moves in with Peter, Beth, and the baby, to Beth’s distress.

Infrequently, Christopher Hampton’s screen adaption of Florian’s play is clumsy and unwieldy. Basically, all the scenes occur indoors. Hampton’s screenplay awkwardly telegraphs some of the narratives. Kate loses her earrings before going out for the evening. Their babysitter bails on them. Nicholas offers to babysit. Peter thinks that’s a good idea. However, Beth has severe reservations. She tells Peter, “I think [Nicholas] is sick in the head!” Suddenly, Nicholas interrupts, “I found [the earrings] in the hall.” That sledgehammer narrative arc is all on Florian and Christopher. Just saying.

Despite its narrative imperfections, The Son bravely reveals the possible sources of suffering for Nicholas and Peter. Peter reunites with his estranged father, Anthony, played with callous gravitas by Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins played the father in Florian’s The Father. When Peter’s mother was dying of cancer, Anthony abandoned them. He was purposely away on travel when she died. Peter promised himself that he would never be like his father.

At dinner, Anthony asks Peter if he came to see him to remind him what a good father he is to Nicholas. He stares and asks, “Do you want applause?” His Father is an asshole. Although Peter might not be all that different from his father, even with his best intentions.

Peter confronts Nicholas for lying that he attended school when he did not. Peter asks, “What do you want to do with your life?” Nicholas blames him for hurting Mom and him when he left. Enraged, Peter grabs Nicholas, “I have the right to reinvent my life!” Nicholas falls to the floor in sheer terror. In a moment of solace, Peter says to Beth, “I’ve become my father.” The Son is eloquent about suffering in silence. That landed authentically for me, too.

The Son is uncompromising in heartbreak. Nicholas survives a mental health crisis and is hospitalized. The doctor, played by Hugh Quarshie, advises Peter and Kate to give their approval for Nicholas’s required psychiatric treatment. He says, “Love isn’t always enough.” Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern as Peter and Kate are riveting in their silence.

In a touching scene, Peter and Kate meet for dinner. Kate shows a photo of 6-year-old Nicholas when they were on vacation. Laura’s Kate says, “There was so much joy in our family.” She says, “I feel like a complete failure.” Laura Dern is vulnerable and as heartfelt as Kate. No, Kate is not a failure. Sometimes, love is not always enough for those suffering from clinical depression. Amen.

In the narrative arc of The Son, Hugh Jackman, as Peter cries, “It was all my fault.” He falls to the floor in tears. I cried, too. No, it wasn’t all his fault. Love isn’t always enough. We choose what to do, and who we’re going to be. We choose what’s best for others, however hard that might be. In my own trials and tribulations, I get that the world isn’t all about me. It’s about others, and what’s best for them. Sometimes, love isn’t always enough. Still, we summon the heart and courage to do what’s right. That’s the eloquent voice of The Son. Just saying.

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