Director: Florian Zeller (UK, France). Year of Release: 2022
Peter is watching his partner Beth put their baby son down. Suddenly, there’s a knocking at the door. It’s a woman who we eventually discover is Peter’s ex-wife Kate. She’s just discovered that their other son. 17-year old Nicholas, has been skipping school for the past month. Apparently the school had sent some e-mails which Kate hadn’t read. We’re going to get quite a lot of this sort of lazy s exposition before we’re done.
The truth is that both Peter and Kate live in such luxury and embody such establishment conservatism that the idea they’d send their kid to a school without the resources to follow up truancy is just risible. Whatever, the relationship between Nicholas and Kate has broken down, so that Peter and Kate decide that Nicholas should pack his bag and move from Kate’s huge apartment to Peter’s even huger flat.
Peter’s job is something or other at a big company in Manhattan that gives him his own office with a view down on the peasants below. He has one of those jobs where, for all that he complains about the hours he works, he never actually does anything. Sometimes some minions appear and tell them that they’re going forward with a company merger. Others he sits in boring meetings or in his big office where he rings people on his mobile. But there’s no actual work as such.
Peter is offered a little jeopardy in that he has been offered a job supporting the presidential campaign of a young hopeful, something which has been his life ambition. While we’re here, who, outside the West Wing, has the ambition of standing in the shadows of an establishment career politician? But it is supposed to be a sign of Peter’s depth of feeling that he is prepared to sacrifice this opportunity and keep his well-paid city job so he can spend some time with his troubled son.
At least Peter has some discernable features. Nicholas is just a cipher, someone who we are to believe is suffering from depression because he says that life is weighing him down. He is surly and unwilling to communicate with any of the adult women who come into his life. He is sent to see a psychiatrist whom he tells that he is bored with people his own age as all they want to do is go to parties. He does his best to channel Holden Caulfield, but to be honest his best isn’t very good.
It is difficult to know which of these self-absorbed narcissists is the least sympathetic. Although the film will ultimately contain the odd tragic scene, for most of the type it feels like we are watching First World Problems: The Movie. At one point, Beth asks Peter “Why are you looking so smug?” How long have they been together? Hasn’t she noticed that smug is his default setting? At one point, when Peter talks about having been poor as a kid, you just stare slacked jawed in incredulity.
At the beginning of the film, there was a frisson of hope that this would turn into something like We Need to Talk about Kevin, where it becomes gradually clear (PLOT SPOILER; but not for this film but one which was released over a decade ago) that the figure with whom we first identify is in fact the problem. There are no such ambiguities here. Peter may have made his mistakes, but he is doing his best, goddammit. What else could he have done?
The film has one of those infuriating titles that winks at you and tells you that it is being clever. Because there is more than one son in the film. As well as Nicholas and his baby brother Theo, there is also Peter, who has spent his life worrying that he might turn into his gun-loving father who neglected his wife and son (though neglect is relative – when Peter visits dad, there are always servants around to do the cooking and cleaning).
For all this, the scene with dad – played by an Anthony Hopkins who no longer cares that he regularly switches into a Welsh accent – is the only justification for the cinema ticket. Hopkins is obviously supposed to be the bad guy – the one who justifies his abhorrent treatment of his family by telling Peter to shut up and just fucking get over it. But Peter is so whiney and basks so much in his privilege, that you leave the scene 100% on the side of his reactionary father.
The Son is, if anything, more offensive because it is addressing a serious issue. Mental illness is nothing to take lightly, and Nicholas would be a tragic figure, if the script were able to make him halfway believable. As it is, he has at best existential angst, but bloody hell, he’s supposed to be 17. It’s hard to find a mid-teenager who isn’t bogged down with the belief that life is meaningless and that they are somehow above all this. There is nothing special about Nicholas.
In an alternative universe there exists a version of The Son, where Nicholas does not seem just like an ungrateful little rich kid, where Peter has real pressures in his life, and whose characters have real demons to fight which exist outside their own vanity. Until then, we have this. You’d never believe that this is from the writers and director of The Father which had its problems but was at least made by sentient beings with a sense of what is plausible.
As in The Father, there is the intimation that the problems of the rich are much more tragic than those of anyone else. But the reverse is true. Yes, Nicholas’s personal problems are sad, if slightly unbelievable. But the fact is that although mental illness affects all classes, it hits poor people disproportionately because money can buy things to make life feel less miserable. There is a difference between ennui and despair, but this film does not come close to understanding this.