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In The Son, Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern play the divorced parents of Nicholas, a 17-year-old struggling with depression and suicidal ideation.Rekha Garton/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics / Elevation Pictures

Is it gutsy or risky for The Son – the latest film from Florian Zeller, who directed and co-wrote The Father – to provide no answers to its big questions? Yes. But according to its stars Laura Dern and Hugh Jackman, that’s its point. Sometimes there aren’t answers. Sometimes (Hollywood endings be damned) love isn’t enough.

The Son is based on Zeller’s stage play of the same name, part of a trilogy of plays about mental health that includes The Father (the 2020 film version won Oscars for its star, Anthony Hopkins, and its screenwriters, Zeller and Christopher Hampton) and The Mother (which was staged in New York and London, but hasn’t been adapted for film). Dern and Jackman play Kate and Peter, divorced parents of Nicholas (Zen McGrath), a 17-year-old struggling with depression and suicidal ideation. Peter’s found happiness in his soaring law career, his younger second wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and their new baby. Kate’s been Nicholas’s primary parent; the film opens with her arrival at Peter’s door, where she admits she can no longer handle their son alone – in fact, he scares her sometimes.

When Nicholas moves in with Peter and Beth, things are upended rather than settled. Kate feels even more like a failure. Peter confronts his selfishness, and that of his own father (a scorching cameo from Hopkins). Huge questions rear up: What do we do with our guilt and shame after love ends? Should we pursue happiness for ourselves, even if it hurts others? Most crucially, Nicholas’s illness is not softened or sanitized.

“Other films that explore mental health crises try to make it palatable by revealing all these warning signs,” Dern said in a joint interview with Jackman when The Son premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. “But real life doesn’t give us warning signs.”

“We get no ‘why’ Nicholas is depressed,” Jackman agrees. “Florian is uncompromising about that. As parents, Kate and Peter feel guilt, shame, ignorance. They feel it’s their fault, the divorce, something they did or didn’t do. But with mental health issues, we don’t know ‘why.’ As a society, we’re in the early stages of trying to understand them. We wanted to show the process without providing easy answers, and for the characters to live in that state.”

Hugh Jackman as Peter in The Son.Rekha Garton/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics / Elevation Pictures

The two actors – parents themselves, with children around Nicholas’s age – dug into research, consulting psychiatrists, therapists and books, about divorced families, second families, adolescent depression, suicide. They, along with the rest of the film’s cast and crew, had access to free, anonymous counselling sessions during production (and pre- and post-production). They internalized bleak facts – for example, over the last two years, the number of teenagers with suicidal intent appearing at U.S. emergency rooms has increased 50 per cent. And they discussed the layers of pressure today’s teenagers face, from social media, climate change, school shootings and the COVID-19 pandemic. Once on set, however, Zeller asked them to let all that go and dig into their deepest fears, vulnerabilities and capacities for denial.

Inevitably, the film awoke its stars’ own adolescent issues. “Got an hour?” Dern cracks. One example: She realized that as a young person, she never gave herself permission to be afraid, “as if being called fearful, a scaredy cat, was the most horrible thing I could be,” she says. “Now I look back at myself, having a professional acting career while I was still in middle school, going on location by myself, sleeping alone in hotel rooms, tamping down all that anxiety. We have to share when we’re raw and vulnerable, so people know that no one is always fine.”

“Whatever our upbringing is, we bring those pains, scars, joys and lessons into our parenting,” Jackman says. He recalls how once, when he asked for advice, his father replied, “You praise your kids too much.” That obviously still stings. “A bunch of things came up during this film,” he adds. “It was a very emotional time.”

Both actors came away changed as parents. Before, they assumed it was selfish to admit to worries or anxieties; they felt they were protecting their kids by denying their fears. “Now I say, ‘I’m sorry I’ve been distant, I’ve been worried about x or y,’” Jackman says. “The relief on their faces! And it’s taught them to follow up – they ask me if I’m feeling better.”

“I was worried about my mother, who was sick,” Dern says. (Her mother is the actress Diane Ladd.) “After I told my daughter that, she confessed that she thought I’d been mad at her, and she’d had severe anxiety about why. Kids know when we’re feeling bad. They feel it. Everything should be on the table.”

The stark reality is, Dern continues, “We are raising a generation that none of us know what to do about what we’re giving them, what we’re leaving them, how to parent them, how to make it better. None of those questions about social media or violence or climate change have answers. All of us are wrestling with the idea that love will not be enough. We thought that one day when they were mature enough, we could sit our children down and say, ‘I’m sorry for all my screwups, I’ll go to a therapist with you and we can talk out where I got it wrong.’ But even taking responsibility won’t be enough.”

“But it’s also true that those fears have always been there,” Jackman says. “When I was a kid, it was about what TV or music was doing to us. With this film, Florian wants us to lean into that unknown, with vulnerability from both parents and children, to open up these kinds of conversations.” Even ones with no answers.

Special to The Globe and Mail.

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