Following the success of Florian Zeller’s The Father (2021), the auteur returns to cinemas this fall with its highly anticipated spiritual successor, The Son. The film premiered at the TCL Chinese Theater on Saturday afternoon during AFI Fest, with stars Laura Dern and Vanessa Kirby on the red carpet.
Hugh Jackman stars in the lead role as Peter, a hard-working father who misses the signs of his eldest son Nicholas’ (Zen McGrath) mental health struggles while caring for his new infant child with his current younger wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby). Unhappy living with his mother and Peter’s ex-wife Kate, played brilliantly by Laura Dern, Nicholas struggles to find stability and purpose living with his father. As Nicholas’ deep troubles exacerbate the tension within the family, Peter is forced to confront the seriousness of his son’s emotional crisis.
The Son marks the second film to be based on Zeller’s trilogy of plays, which includes The Father, The Mother, and The Son, and had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Golden Lion Award. Anthony Hopkins, who won Best Actor at the Academy Awards last year for his performance in The Father, makes a brief but affecting appearance in the film.
While Jackman was not in attendance at the screening, he appeared on the big screen in a pre-recorded introduction for the enthusiastic audience. “The Son is deeply gratifying to me and everyone involved. It’s a movie that I’m very proud of and one that I hope will spark many conversations.”
The post-screening conversation moderated by Variety Chief film critic Peter Debruge included director/writer Florian Zeller, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, producer Johanna Laurie and National Alliance of Mental Illness Chief Executive Officer Daniel Gillson. A solemn air filled the atmosphere of the theater following the screening as the audience grappled with the film’s emotional conclusion.
“So many people as parents know what it means to be in a position where you do not know what to do anymore and experience powerlessness,” Zeller began. “There was ignorance, denial, shame, and guilt around the issue [of mental health] that I really wanted to open a conversation, and making a film was the best way to do it.”
After The Son premiered at the Venice film festival, Jackman’s searing and emotional performance as a hard-working and ambitious father who cannot understand his son’s crisis was thrust into awards conversations. It’s an uninhabited and raw performance though Zeller did not have Jackman in mind when he was writing the script but was convinced early on in the process to have him play Peter.
“I was just at the beginning of the process of dreaming about who could be in that story when I received a letter from him that he’d heard I was working on this adaptation,” Zeller shared. “He told me he would love ten minutes… and after a few minutes of conversation, I stopped and offered him the part. He was deep down very connected as a man, as a father, as a son, and also as an actor to what I was trying to do.”
Laura Dern reflected on her experience as a mother and reading about the mental health crisis during the pandemic as being influential to her desire to join the project.
“When I received the script, it was the middle of the pandemic, and everywhere we looked, we were hearing about the global epidemic of mental health that was skyrocketing in its numbers, particularly in adolescence and young adult,” Dern explained. “I felt so beyond privileged to be given the opportunity to be part of this and to play the mother as a mother who knows what it is to love with every cell, and also feel powerless at moments when we don’t get to control how our child feels as much as we long to have the answers.”
Vanessa Kirby admitted to being drawn to the dark, uncompromising corners of cinema, which became central to her reason for joining Weller’s new film. “I love Florian’s daring to lean into things that are uncomfortable, unpalatable, and challenging to watch. Yet pain and grief and profound difficulty are just as much a part of life, and I think so often we try to stay comfortable as much as possible.”
The Son is as educational as it is affecting, instigating important conversations around mental health in an effort to demystify and reduce stigma. Daniel Gillson from the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) asserted that if you can identify an individual that’s navigating mental illness, you can get them help.
“The film is extremely authentic in terms of its portrayal, and we see it every day in the work we do. We’re an organization that was started by mothers like Laura [Dern]’s character who were advocating for their sons,” explained Gillson. “She didn’t have anyone else to talk to about her pain. That’s a part of this too. The pain that Nicholas was feeling and the pain that the mother was feeling. They both needed a support group that NAMI provides.”
Zeller added, “I really wanted to portray this family and this father who is loving and caring but doesn’t know how to help his son. He doesn’t know how to open the right doors. He doesn’t have the keys.”
The Son is scheduled for theatrical release in the United States on November 25, 2022.