He asks big questions, but doesn’t offer easy answers. This has thrown off some audience members who want the film to conform to familiar movie scenarios, or at least to follow the pattern of Zeller’s 2020 “The Father,” with questions about what’s real and what isn’t, and a big twist partway through.
But Zeller doesn’t want to follow those rules.
Zeller has written 13 plays, adapting two into his first films. “Most of my plays are structured as mazes or labyrinths, like ‘The Father,’ ” he tells Variety. “But for ‘The Son,’ I tried to be simple and straightforward, to not create a gimmick about it, but to try to face it, so we chose to have very linear way to tell the story.”
At the film’s start, Peter (Hugh Jackman) is visited by his ex, Kate (Laura Dern), who’s at a loss on how to handle their son Nicholas (Zen McGrath). So teenage Nicholas moves in with his father, Peter’s younger wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and their infant son.
Nicholas is clearly unhappy, but is it simply teenage angst or something deeper and more troubling?
“When the film opens, he could be a regular teenager, and it takes time to understand what is going on, especially if you’re not familiar with these notions,” says Zeller. “The whole point of making the film was to open a conversation, because there is so much ignorance, shame and guilt. Only one teen out of three is receiving the care that’s needed.
“I wanted to tell this story from the parents’ perspective. They’re loving but sometimes that’s not enough.
“I wasn’t trying to understand what it means to be in pain, but more what it means to be powerless and make wrong decisions. ”
Humans think we know how we’d react in stressful situations, but we are usually wrong. So some audiences find Peter, Kate and Beth unbelievable. But in fact, they’re painfully believable. We’re in denial about how much individuals can be in denial.
Zeller consulted with experts, who confirmed that parents often don’t know how to ask for the right help.
The writer-director was lucky to have such a great cast, with Jackman and Dern Oscar contenders (as is Zeller). Jackman wrote him a letter, saying, in essence, if the role is available, he would love 10 minutes with the helmer.
“We met,” Zeller says, “and he had an honest connection with this pain and emotion. I knew it wouldn’t only be an actor attracted to a part, but also a man, as a father and a son. I was honored that he was courageous and honest enough to approach me in this way. He’s an extraordinary actor and human being.”
With Dern, for the supporting role as the ex-wife, “Casting is an instinctive process. I was looking for actors open to explore bonds they have with this story. Laura was very aware of these difficulties. She said, ‘There is a mental-health epidemic and I want to try to do something about it.’
“My goal was to put the audience in the shoes of people who don’t know how to help someone else. It takes courage to ask for help, especially for parents to accept the fact they’re not well-equipped.
“When you are going through a difficult moment, you always feel alone. Art is to let you know you’re not alone.”