"The Son" is not an easy watch.
That's not the problem.
The second film directed by writer Florian Zeller, it is, like the first — 2020's stunningly effective and affecting "The Father" — an adaptation of one of his own plays and co-written with Christopher Hampton ("Atonement"). (They are part of a trilogy of plays addressing mental health, the other being "The Mother," which has yet to be adapted for the screen.)
Whereas "The Father" dealt with dementia, "The Son" tackles the similarly difficult topic of depression. And it tells a much more straightforward story. With one exception, there are no scenes where you will question the reality with which Zeller is presenting you.
While Hugh Jackman, as successful big-city executive Peter Miller, gets top billing in "The Son," it is the performance of the little-known Zen McGrath as Nicolas Miller, the film's titular 17-year-old, that most impresses. The character is struggling — virtually indescribably — with being alive, and it hits hard.
Unfortunately, though, the contrived nature of the film's climactic stretch takes away from much of the more subtle work that precedes it. It's a bit of half-baked storytelling, consisting of a situation that rings only somewhat true and feels designed primarily to get the viewer quickly to a resolution that feels almost inescapable.
"The Son" begins with some blurry, idyllic images of a mother and a baby boy. This is not a young Nicolas and his mother, however, but instead Peter's new wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and their newborn.
Peter's blissful new life chapter is interrupted by a visit from his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern), with news that Nicolas hasn't been to school in months. This came as a shock to her, as he has left home every morning with a school bag.
She admits, though, that their son's behavior has been concerning.
"He just looked at me with so much hatred," she says, recounting a recent interaction with Nicolas. "I thought he was going to ... ."
"What?" Peter asks.
"He scares me," she answers. "OK?"
Although he's not very communicative, Nicolas asks his father if he can move in with him, saying that he knows his mother can't handle him any longer and that he wants to spend time with his baby brother. When Peter brings the idea to Beth, she has serious reservations but gives her approval, and Nicolas soon moves into a back room and begins to attend a nearby high school.
It's not long before Nicolas is exhibiting more troubling behavior, which includes confronting Beth about the nature of her falling in love with his then-married father. Plus, she discovers Nicolas has hidden a small kitchen knife under his mattress, the teen subsequently admitting to Peter that the scars on his arm represent his attempts to redirect the pain he feels.
It's heartbreaking stuff, and it's handled thoughtfully and delicately, for the most part. Peter wants to do everything he can to help Nicolas, from spending time with him and trying to get him to open up about what he's feeling to getting him to see a professional who may have better success in that area.
Of course, with all the time and energy he already spends on work, the amount of himself he's now giving to Nicolas is causing a strain on his marriage, despite Beth's efforts to be understanding of the difficult situation.
The movie's first major misstep comes when Peter decides to visit his own father, an ever-ambitious creature of Washington, D.C., who seemingly has no regrets that he was a pretty lousy dad. The one-note scene is especially disappointing given that Anthony Miller is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, who won the best-actor Academy Award in 2021 for his outstanding work in "The Father." Hopkins elevates the scene as only he can but also only a bit.
Jackman, meanwhile, who asked Zeller if he could play the role of Peter after seeing "The Father," is solid. Sadly, many parents of troubled teens will relate to the emotions he conveys as Peter. There's nothing that takes the performance to the next level, but the veteran of the "X-Men" movies is effective.
We wish the role of Beth were a bit more expansive given the talent Kirby has displayed in "The Crown" and, especially, the 2020 film "Pieces of a Woman." That said, she is an asset to "The Son."
The work by Dern ("Jurassic World Dominion"), on the other hand, is a mixed bag. The veteran actress underwhelms in a couple of scenes but shines in a couple of Kate's most vulnerable moments.
And then there's McGrath, an Australian native with limited credits. That Nicolas can be so frustrating to the adults who care about him — that you feel how challenging it would be to truly help him — is a credit to both the actor and the writers.
Ultimately, though, it's hard to recommend "The Son," even if it's easy to appreciate that it is an ambitious attempt at examining a highly complex issue.
2 stars (out of 4)
Rated: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving suicide, and strong language)
Running time: 2:03
How to watch: In theaters Friday