FIN FEST REVIEW: Heavy-handed The Son fails its remarkable lead performance

There are few actors as genuinely reliable as Hugh Jackman. A handsome leading man with charisma, musical talent, and a breezy charisma, he makes everything he’s in better just based on his presence.

And yet, while The Son may see him at his very best, his exquisite, moving performance just can’t pull this feature out of its tired, melodramatic trappings.

He stars as Peter, a man who’s built a new post-divorce life with a new wife and infant son. But when his ex Kate shows up to talk about the troubling behaviour of their teen son Nicholas, his life is thrown into disarray.

The fact The Son was nominated for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival, and received a reported 10-minute standing ovation absolutely confounds me. I found it to be an emotionally-manipulative drama that would rather prod us to cry with a weepy score than earn the audience’s empathy.

Nicholas – a depressed teenager suffering from anxiety and social issues – decides to move out of his mother’s home and move in with father Peter, his little brother, and Peter’s new wife Beth. This sparks a paternal instinct in the father to make it right with his son following the contentious divorce and breaking up of his first family.

The main reason this film doesn’t work is the excessive performance from young Zen McGrath as Nicholas. Through all the screaming and crying, the young star just couldn’t contend with the other thespians. I found myself thinking of Timothee Chalamet, Lucas Hedges and Logan Lerman, who in their younger years could all have handled the role with so much more grace.

McGrath is not a bad actor, but perhaps one who could have used a bit more coaching from director Florian Zeller, whose spiritual follow-up to Oscar contender The Father falls way short of that feature.

Zeller almost feels like he’s on auto-pilot here, as the best ensemble I’ve seen assembled this year struggle to make something out of wrought material.

Jackman is Oscar-worthy, and the performances from Laura Dern and Vanessa Kirby are good, given the material they have to work with.

Anthony Hopkins makes more of in impact in his six minutes of screen-time than McGrath manages as the star, proving perhaps a lighter touch was necessary.

This is a serious, consequential film about mental illness, guilt, and familial bonds that somehow failed to make me feel much of anything.

See it for Jackman, who gives a defining dramatic turn. It’s because of him that The Son isn’t an outright failure. But it certainly pales in comparison to what it could have been.

3/5 Stars

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