‘The Son’ is a conversation starter about the nature of family and the crisis surrounding teenage mental health

by Kathryn McDonald 

When I reviewed “The Father” in 2021, I had nothing but admiration for the screenwriters, directors, actors and the myriad of other professionals that put their heart into the art they created. Now, after watching its prequel, “The Son,” I must admit that I am once again blown away by the poignant storyline and presentation. 

In this artistic film, audiences step back in the timeline to explore a new facet of the human experience: family. What is a family? Who is my family? How does family life translate from one generation to the next? These questions are explored throughout the film. 

The movie explores the intergenerational issues of a father, Peter, played by Hugh Jackman, who has started his second family after leaving his first wife and son. Soon, his troubled teenage son Nicholas, played by Zen McGrath, from the first marriage arrives looking for answers and a sense of belonging. 

Although it is difficult to explain the plot of the movie without any spoilers, there are several themes that run through the film that provide structure and direction. 

First, the film explores this family in crisis. The hopelessness and frustration that accompanies seeing your child hurting was a complex and heavy topic to unpack. At one point, Peter tells his son, “We’ll work it out. Trust me.” And I, like Nicholas, found myself wanting to hold onto that hope. 

The tragedy is amplified by the happy memories we witness this family share. 

The mental health of Nicholas deteriorates as self-harming behaviors begin to envelop him in a stronghold of despair. While we never learn exactly what instigated this teen’s spiral, the picture begins to clear as we understand that crushing expectations have been passed along like a baton in a relay race. From one generation to the next, the father-son bond is overshadowed by the grief that each shares surrounding the family’s brokenness. This web of interconnected trauma and heartache really left me pondering the principle that sin can have consequences even “… to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:7)

The idea that our actions affect everyone around us really is at odds with the cult of autonomy that Peter has bought into. At one point, Nicholas confronts his father’s new wife about whether or not she knew he existed when she started a relationship with Peter. Why did she not even think twice about being with a man who was already married and had a son? 

As far as the artistry is concerned, I am really impressed with the film’s musical score as well as the dialogue between the characters. At one point in the movie, there is what I would describe as a wordless conversation, which was such an interesting thing to watch. Two characters have an entire conversation in which no coherent thoughts are ever shared, but the sentiments are still communicated. It was a remarkable scene that made me smile as I realized how true-to-life moments like this really are. 

Laura Dern and Hugh Jackman do a marvelously believable job of depicting two divorcees who have endured a difficult separation. 

One final point of admiration that I have for this film is the way that it delicately and honestly handles the topic of the mental health crisis that many young people find themselves in. There is only one teenage character in this movie, though there is one scene that takes place at a school, and as he encounters real mental health struggles, his parent’s approaches are revealing of their ignorance and perhaps dated perspective. We often hear from older adults that, “Things weren’t like this when I was a teen.” This sentiment is echoed to some degree by Peter and to a much larger degree by the grandfather, played by Anthony Hopkins. I think that this opens the door for intergenerational conversations about mental health and the need for treating mental illnesses with a lot of care. 

The word “why” hangs in the air and ricochets through the minds of each character and their audience as the movie concludes with some very raw scenes. Every character expresses some sort of “I don’t understand” either during the conflict or following the tragedy that is at the heart of this story. 

Just as a note of caution for individuals who may be interested in watching this movie, I would not recommend this to young people or even younger teens. It handles a lot of mature subject material and the disturbing nature of some of the content may not be healthy for individuals to watch if they are struggling with depression, anxiety, past trauma or suicidal ideation. 

“The Son” is currently showing in select theaters during a limited release. 

Kathryn McDonald is a senior Psychology major and writer for the Arts and Entertainment section of Cedars. You can probably catch her writing a letter to a friend in the library or drinking coffee from her favorite mug. When she is not at her desk studying, she is probably on her phone catching up with friends or reading her favorite volumes of American poetry.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures.

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