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In 2020, the film ‘El padre’ slipped by surprise among the candidates for the main categories of the Hollywood Oscars, and ended up taking the statuettes for Best Actor (for Anthony Hopkins) and Best Adapted Screenplay. This last prize was shared by the tandem of playwrights and filmmakers formed by the British Christopher Hampton and the Frenchman Florian Zeller, who also directed the film. Now, in ‘The Son’, Hampton and Zeller repeat the move by bringing to the screen a new play by the Frenchman, neither more nor less than a prequel to ‘The Father’. The ingredients of the film menu are repeated: spectacular performances, a script that explores the universality of the themes explored, and a clever game around the point of view from which the story is told. And it would be strange if the final result was not the same: the Oscar nominations resonate on the horizon of a film that, clinging to the coordinates of popular cinema, strongly challenges the conscience and heart of the viewer.
‘The Son’ tells the story of Peter (Hugh Jackman), a man who divides his time between his successful job as a political advisor and the care of two children, one newborn – the result of his relationship with a young woman played by Vanessa Kirby – and the other already a teenager, Nicholas (Zen McGrath). The viewer finds Peter at the zenith of personal and professional fulfillment, however, a few minutes into the film, the protagonist’s happiness begins to crumble when he receives a visit from his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern), who tells him that Nicholas hasn’t been to school for a month. Then begins a chain of repeated attempts, by the parents, to find out what is happening to the melancholy teenager, whom we see in his room surrounded by posters and maxims by Arthur Rimbaud. From this premise, Zeller builds a dense family drama that is based on a functional staging work and effective performances.
No one will be surprised that Laura Dern borders on her appearances as a mother who, still reeling from the trauma of her divorce, finds herself unable to comprehend her son’s distress. Less common is to find Australian Hugh Jackman in a role as demanding as Peter, who tries to escape the wounds caused by an absent father (Anthony Hopkins) by giving himself body and soul to the care of his teenage son. However, the task is not easy, especially when not even the young man himself seems to understand the origin of his affliction. As the minutes go by, the viewer ends up noticing that the gravitational center of ‘The Son’ is made up of a study of the mental health problems that affect today’s youth, an issue that the terrible collective experience of the Covid pandemic has become a hot topic. In this sense, ‘The Son’ has precedents within Hollywood itself, from the ardor of ‘Girl, Interrupted’ to the surgical coldness of ‘The Ice Storm’, although this critic would stick with the delicacy and humor with which Wes Anderson has tackled youthful melancholy.
For his part, guided by the desire not to simplify the subject, Zeller decides to approach mental health problems in youth from a relatively outside perspective. Unlike what happened in ‘El padre’, where the film seemed to be told from the point of view of the protagonist – a man who was beginning to lose touch with reality – ‘The Son’ seeks a distanced point of view, without that the viewer can penetrate the inner drama of the young Nicholas. This strategy allows Zeller to open a terrifying black hole in the film, which surely does justice to the magnitude of the drama depicted. However, the decision to turn the young man’s depression into impenetrable territory also creates problems in the film, and not only because of the imbalance in the portrayal of the different characters, but also because of the feeling that the film treats the viewer in the same way. how the sick boy tries to deceive his parents, hiding his situation from them. This is how a sagacious and risky dramaturgical approach takes shape, which seeks to awaken the viewer’s conscience and allows all the actors and actresses in the show to shine at great heights.