The modern world understands the importance of breaking generational patterns. The impact of our upbringing and our parents’ actions are eternal to our personalities. What we are taught, what we see, and what we hear as kids plays a significant role in shaping our lives as adults. In the 2022 drama movie “The Son,” we are introduced to such a premise where a teenage kid, Nicholas, is trapped under the weight of life itself. The walls feel like they are closing in, and his will to live diminishes as every moment passes by. His parents, Peter and Kate (played by Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern), try everything in their power to help their kid get through such a tough phase in life. Written and directed by Florian Zeller, “The Son” tells an intricate tale of love, loss, abandonment, and broken families.
Peter and Kate parted ways as they realized their marriage was not going to last. Nonetheless, Peter stayed with the family for Nicholas’ sake. Presently, Peter has moved on with his new partner, Beth, and their infant son, Theo. Life seems to be going well for Peter, as he is a successful lawyer, has a beautiful family, and is on good terms with his ex-wife as well. However, a sudden visit from Kate bearing bad news throws his life into a tailspin. Nicholas is not doing well in life. From skipping school to harming himself, he shows no joy in life or in his wish to continue living. While Peter seems hopeful that he can support and be with him, there are only a limited number of options available to him. He seems to think being in school and working hard for something can get Nicholas out of a jam and give him a new perspective on life. Moreover, Peter wishes to take care of his child in a way his father never did. In his mind, he is already doing better than what he knows and what he expected from his father when he was a kid. But, in Nicholas’s perspective, that’s not what he wants. He feels burdened under Peter’s expectations for him to be successful.
Every character in the movie has their own struggles to overcome. In the 2-hour runtime, Zeller manages to instill depth and personality into each one of his characters. Not only that, the movie faces a plethora of different themes that round off the movie without seeming like a quintessential drama. With the foreshadowing of spinning machines and the eerie impending doom, we feel the movie thwarts the showing process and rather focuses on talking about things. Nevertheless, it succeeds in depicting the brutality of mental health illnesses in today’s world. The inexplicable nature of problems, the deep-rooted feeling of sadness that does not go away, and the intricate balancing act of present and past take the movie to a different level.
Peter and Kate, although on amicable terms, show the effect that a parent’s divorce can have on a child. Nicholas feels abandoned by Peter and is envious of his new family. Even though we remain unaware of the other issues that contribute to his deteriorating state of mind, we can see he is having a tough time dealing with life. He skips school to go roam around or sit on a park bench for hours. The depiction of mental illnesses and their continued effect on people is spot on. While we wish to have seen more depth in Nicholas’s character and the surrounding issues that present hindrances in his life, Zeller managed to show us exactly how difficult it is to talk about those issues that one does not understand themselves. Peter and Kate tried their best to help their son, but even their hands were tied as they couldn’t possibly understand something they knew nothing about. Nicholas claimed to need a change of pace as he was plagued with dark thoughts at his mother’s place. However, even that did not help him, as he was unable to cope at Peter’s home too. Everything seemed to come at him at once. As he claims constantly, life is too hard for him. He needed some kind words, gentle reassurance, and some support from his loved ones. Nicholas did not have friends, as he had trouble socializing as well. He did not connect with his age group or his peers. Their interests were different, and so were their opinions on having fun. Loneliness contributed to a larger extent to his persistent problems in life. Just having a safe space and someone to talk to helps relieve some pent-up frustration. Ultimately, he did not want to stay at the hospital either. He pleaded with his parents to take him home, only to take his own life soon after. We cannot even begin to imagine the struggles he must have gone through.
Nicholas’s father, Peter, had his own share of issues in the movie. Starting with his own childhood and his father, Peter never felt he could rely on his father for anything since he was never around. Even when Peter goes to visit his father in DC, we see the tense animosity between the two. Peter’s father takes no responsibility for their past hardships and even asks him to “get over it.” This gives us some perspective as to why Peter is how he is. He tries so hard to keep everyone happy. From Kate and Nicholas to Beth and Theo, Peter makes sure he loves and supports everyone without ever caring about what he wants. He decides to be the complete opposite of his father and be better than him in every aspect. Down the line, he feels that is also not enough, as Nicholas feels suffocated or burdened under his expectations. On the other hand, Peter has to balance his present and his past. In a lot of facets, Peter is an archetype of what a caring and affectionate man should look like. He thanks Beth for her cooperation, lends Nicholas a shoulder to cry on, and even consoles Kate that everything will be alright. With his needs on the back burner, Peter chooses to even cancel an important project to spend time with the people he loves most. As a husband and as a father, Peter did everything he thought was right.
Furthermore, Kate is an understanding mother. She believes she’s at the end of the road with her son but still perseveres to save him. She also feels like a failure because she cannot take care of her only son. Kate feels abandoned too, because first Peter left her and then Nicholas did. Left all by herself, she feels unable to cope with the present situation. She finds it hard to adjust to a reality where she pushes away everyone close to her and lives a lonesome life. Such tumultuous situations break her heart, yet she has nothing else left to go on for. Kate represents the struggles of women whose husbands leave them for another woman or who are left with no proper closure or explanation. The life of a single mother is hard. Zeller reimagines that character for Laura Dern, where her powerful emotions tell a story deeper than the common dialogue. Moreover, Kate revels in the memories of her past. She reminds Peter of all the good times they had and every waking moment she spent loving their family. She finds comfort in the past, which shows her the perfect life, rather than in the present, where she wakes up in a nightmare every morning.
Additionally, Beth is the silent observer of the Miller family’s struggles in the movie. She speaks her mind and bears witness to everything that goes on. With a young infant to take care of, she agrees to have Nicholas live with them because it means a lot to Peter. She remains considerate and understanding in every situation. Beth also reassures Peter and never lets him doubt himself as a man and as a father. At times, she loses her temper and expresses everything she has been thinking about, like the time she tells Peter that Nicholas is disturbed and needs professional help. Considering the pressure and situation she was in, she was bound to have an emotional outburst. Despite that, she gave Nicholas another chance and went along with the living arrangement. Furthermore, she cared for Nicholas. Her intention was not to rat him out when she finds the knife or sees him in the park and not at school; rather, it came from a position of concern and affection.
In conclusion, the movie features various personalities that are entangled in the mess of life. They may not understand everything the others might be feeling, but they try to keep up and support one another. The saddening end breaks our hearts, all the while thinking of what could have been. We see Nicholas as a writer, only to have the perfect image shattered in an instant. Zeller’s vision to portray life as it is, harsh and merciless, rather than a rainbow-filled dreamland, comes through wonderfully.