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Flix at :48: 'The Son' fails to shake off its theatrical roots

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A mother and son sit on a couch, while the father stands behind them, leaning over the couch. They are all smiling.

When French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller had success adapting his play "The Father" into the Oscar-winning film from 2020, the doors must have opened wide for him to choose another play he's written for translation to the screen. So that's how the recently released film "The Son" came about.

"The Son" is adapted from Florian Zeller's play of the same name, first produced in 2019, and tells the entangled story of divorced parents trying to help their teenage son handle his growing depression and suicidal thoughts. Like his previously directed film "The Father," Florian Zeller's "The Son" explores the psychological baggage of family relationships and the constant struggle people have making honest connections.

Because "The Son" is adapted from a play, and a play written by a Frenchman, there's a lot of dialogue with most of the dialogue being very serious. And because this film wants the audience to be absorbed in every word, and in every subtext of those words, "The Son" has no flashy cinematography or dynamic editing. It's a film about the words.

I love any story that works hard to show the realities of mental illness and the frustration, betrayal and rage that often come with such an issue. Far too easily, films can slip into portrayals of abnormal mental conditions as dangerous spectacles, like "Fatal Attraction" (1987) or "Split" (2016), and not genuine complexities of dejection and debasement, like "Melancholia" (2011) or "I Smile Back" (2015). "The Son" does not do this. Mental illness as spectacle, and depression specifically, is not its aim.

But I think because this film is about such a heavy, real-life conflict, all the actors give strongly concerted performances. And these performances come off as forced or overly vigorous, like the actors are trying to galvanize viewers into feeling the same grief as the characters they're watching.

Suprisingly, the actor who does this the most is Hugh Jackman ("Logan," 2017) in the leading role. He pushes so hard at showing an emotionally out of touch father surrounded by guilt and regret, I wish the director had pulled him aside to whisper the words, "Calm down," or, "A little less," into his ear.

Maybe because this film is adapted from a play, too many people thought it needed bigger or more theatrical performances. But it's these theatrical performances that kill the intimacy and desperation the film is trying to evoke.

"The Son" sets out to break a lot of hearts, but I wish it didn't try so hard to do it. And the fateful ending is poignant, but it's also predictable. (Maybe the screenplay tries too hard also.) It's a great example of Oscar bait, especially with themes of generational misjudgement, parental expectations and the toll of constant anxieties. But it's a shame it couldn't all come together.

Casey T. Allen is a native of Utah who graduated from Utah State University with a Bachelor's degree in English in 2007. He has worked in many capacities throughout USU campus and enjoys his time at UPR to continually exercise his writing.