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The Son 2023

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Paul Asay

Movie Review

Life is a gift, they say. So it is. And so, for many, it remains. Each day brings new joys, new opportunities. With each sunrise, the gift of life looks ever more precious.

But for some people—whether it’s because of struggles or setbacks or some strange, misfiring synapses in the brain—the gift of life can feel like that treasured Christmas-morning toy that’s been all-but-forgotten by July. The gift can feel old. Faded. Worn.

Broken.

Nicholas stopped going to school a month ago. Oh, the 17-year-old sure looked like he was going to school. His mother, Kate, watched him put on his backpack and head out the door every morning. Every afternoon he’d return right on time. But instead of heading to high school, he’d walk. Walk. Walk.

“It’s not only that,” frantic Kate tells Peter—her ex-husband and Nicholas’ father. “He’s not well. You need to speak with him.”

Peter agrees, even though part of him, deep inside, may grumble. He doesn’t have time for this. Not with his schedule.

He’s always been busy, of course: You don’t get the posh office with a view of the Chrysler Building by sitting still. But even by Peter’s standards, the next several months could be exponentially more stressful. He’s been asked to help out with a prominent senator’s presidential campaign—an opportunity that just comes around once. He’s involved with a new partner now, too. And Peter and Beth have their own son together.

But, of course, if he can help his other son, he will.

When Peter does talk with Nicholas, he learns that Kate’s right: Nicholas isn’t well. He’s not well at all.

Nicholas begs Peter to let him move in with him. He’s not getting along with Mom right now, the teen says. Nicholas admits that while living with her, “I get too many dark ideas.”

Peter knows the situation isn’t ideal. To bring a troubled 17-year-old into this life … how will Beth deal with it? For that matter, how will he?

By now, Peter doesn’t dream of refusing—not when Nicholas needs him. Maybe he’ll be able to help Nicholas where his ex could not. Maybe he can give Nicholas a little hope, a little direction, a little fatherly love.

Maybe he can help Nicholas understand that life is a gift after all.

Positive Elements

Peter has made plenty of mistakes as a father, and we’ll get into those. But he wants to do better. He wants to help his son as much as he can, and he’s willing to make some pretty big sacrifices along the way. Asking Beth to allow Nicholas to move in with them is no small thing, for one. For another, he’s willing to scrap some of his professional ambitions to make sure that Nicholas finds his footing. He loves Nicholas: We see that clearly. And he really does try to show that love in all sorts of ways.

Of course, Kate loves Nicholas, too. These days, Nicholas communicates with her mainly through icy glares, but Kate keeps trying to break through and help her son. When Nicholas leaves to live with Peter, Kate insists that he take a loaf of banana bread—a sweet, desperate attempt to again remind him how much she cares for him. “I love you,” she calls after him. Nicholas doesn’t answer.

But let’s not be too hard on Nicholas. His parents don’t understand what he’s going through, and how could they? And when he leaves for Peter’s place, it truly is an attempt to silence the noise in his head. In a painful admission, he tells someone, “Sometimes I feel like I’m not made for this life. Even so, I try every day, with all of my strength.” Ultimately, he loves his parents as much as they love him. And yet, his own pain hamstrings his ability to show that love—either to them or to himself.

Spiritual Elements

In one scene, when Nicholas is having some dark thoughts, Peter and Kate—both at their respective workplaces—seem to sense that something’s wrong. But that’s as close as the movie ever gets to a moment of even cowled spirituality.

Sexual Content

We learn that Peter and Beth met when Peter and Kate were still married. While the movie never explicitly tells us whether Peter and Beth had a physical affair, it’s clear Kate and Nicholas both blame Beth, at least in part, for their family’s disintegration.

Peter and Beth kiss and make out on a couch—clearly progressing toward more intimacy. Their foreplay is interrupted by Nicholas, who asks Peter to come and talk with him when they’re “finished.”

Nicholas tells Peter about a girl he’s thinking about asking out. We see both Peter and Nicholas shirtless.

In a flash-forward-like sequence, a grown Nicholas tells Peter that he and his girlfriend are going to be moving in together. Peter seems thrilled. When Nicholas prepares to tell him another bit of news, the son reassures a flustered Peter that he’s not going to be a father.

Violent Content

The Son deals with mental illness and self-harm. While it’s refreshingly restrained in how it deals with these issues, perhaps the biggest issue for some viewers will be that those issues crop up at all. This movie, for certain people, can be painfully disturbing and triggering. And because we’ll need to deal with it all here, I want to warn you that this section will contain spoilers.

Nicholas commits acts of self-harm, cutting his arms with knives. We only see those wounds briefly, and they’re pretty minor: “Scratches,” Nicholas says. But he does hide a knife underneath his mattress (at first, he says, for his own safety and protection). Most of the time, Nicholas keeps his arms covered with sleeves—which some suspect is because he wants to hide his cutting.

He eventually tells someone that the cutting is a way to “channel the pain”—sending the mental anguish he’s experiencing into the physical pain he’s creating. Without that outlet, Nicholas worries that he’d resort to even more drastic measures. Peter makes Nicholas promise to quit cutting.

Nicholas sometimes describes his feelings in starkly physical terms—telling his father that sometimes his head feels like it’s “exploding,” and the divorce made him feel as though he was “chopped in half”. In a fight, Peter pretty much pushes Nicholas down.

Nicholas tries to kill himself with, apparently, a knife. We don’t see the act: Peter receives a phone call and then, in the next scene he and Kate are both at the hospital. The ER psychiatrist tells them both that he’ll be just fine—at least physically. But just a matter of days later, Nicholas completes the act. We hear a gun report off camera.

Crude or Profane Language

We hear three f-words—an almost unheard-of count in a PG-13 movie—and the same number of s-words. We also hear “a–,” “h—” and about eight misuses of God’s name.

Drug and Alcohol Content

When Kate and Peter meet at a restaurant to talk about Nicholas, Peter initially orders a sparkling water. When Kate orders a martini, he changes his own order to have the same. Peter visits his own father at his mansion, and the two share drinks, sitting on opposite ends of a long dining table.

Other Negative Elements

You could argue that Nicholas and Peter, for a time, co-enable the teen’s issues. Nicholas regularly lies to Peter (as he does to most everyone else in his life) in an effort to make Peter think that he’s getting better. Peter, especially early on, takes in those lies and accepts them without question. “Soon, everything will be back to normal,” he reassures Kate. “Everything will be fine.”

When Peter learns (and relearns) that everything isn’t fine, he turns angry and even combative, which puts some unnecessary and damaging walls between father and son at a critical moment. (We see other scenes that seem to hurt Nicholas as well.)

But if Peter proves to be an imperfect father, he seems much better than his own. We learn that Peter’s mother was in the hospital for a long time before her death, and that Peter visited her every day. His dad rarely did—too busy with work, the excuse went, and he was always away on business. But toward the end, Peter learns that when he thought his dad was away on business, he was actually in town, eating dinner with a friend. He still couldn’t be bothered to visit his dying wife.

Conclusion

We Christians are taught that love is the most powerful force on earth. The Apostle Paul tells us that it exceeds the ability to move mountains, the power to understand all mysteries. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hope all things, endures all things,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 13:7.

But it cannot save all things. Not as we might wish them to be saved.

Both Peter and Kate love Nicholas, the boy that Kate still calls her “little sunbeam.” So full of life he was, so full of potential. And throughout the film, they see glimpses of that beautiful little boy again—flashes of that sunbeam. They’d do anything to help him. They do what they can to love him to a healthier place.

But a doctor tells them that their journey isn’t about “how much you love your son. … Under these circumstances, love is not enough.”

I’m not sure if I’d agree wholly with that statement. I’d say that love is still the most critical element in helping someone with mental illness. But that love can, sometimes, look different than we’d like.

We know this, of course. When we yell at a 3-year-old to not touch a hot stove, that is what love looks like. When we ground them for not doing their homework, that is what love looks like.

And when we don’t believe a loved one when they tell us that they’re doing “just fine,” when we encourage them to seek and find help—perhaps, sometimes even forcing the issue—that, too, is what love looks like.

And even then, sometimes it’s not enough.

The Son is a moving study of mental illness and all the dynamics that go along with it: how families can help and hurt; how those suffering can help and hurt those around them. The film boasts some tremendous acting, poignant-and-painful insights and—especially given the subject matter—a surprising level of restraint. Director Florian Zeller keeps our attention focused on the people and does not distract us with unsavory content. And, of course, it deals with an issue that could use more attention.

And yet, for all The Son has going for it, the film drags us through a great deal of pain for very little purpose. And for those who have their own history with mental illness, the film can drag you into darker places than you’d like to go. Despite its honesty and artistry, The Son misses the mark.

Do you know a teen going through similar struggles as Nicholas? Listen to Focus on the Family’s podcast series on preventing teen suicide.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.