Between New Year’s Resolutions and Valentine’s Day, this time of year may be one when a lot of relationships get reconsidered, as people ask themselves the usual questions: “Am I too old/nice/hot/smart/etc. to put up with this?” Several new movies arriving this Friday may provide some guidance—mostly by offering worst-case-scenarios.
The highest-profile release is The Son, although its luster has already dimmed considerably since premiering on the film festival circuit in early fall, when it was expected to be a prime award contender. After all, French playwright Florian Zeller’s directorial debut The Father had been exactly that two years earlier—a double Oscar winner (for star Anthony Hopkins and adapted screenplay) whose ingenious narrative-puzzle-box treatment of senile dementia made it one of the best movies of 2020. This followup is likewise based on a Zeller stage work, again adapted by himself and the esteemed Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons), and features other returning collaborators. Yet even its defenders admit that lightning has not exactly struck twice.
The premise is promising enough: Hugh Jackman plays Peter, a high-powered executive who’s moved on to the near-inevitable, younger Trophy Wife #2 (Vanessa Kirby as Beth), with whom he’s starting a new family—leaving behind the old one of Kate (Laura Dern) and teenage son Nicholas (Zen McGrath.) Trouble is, while everyone else pretends this is just fine, Nick is wrestling with depression, self-harm, “dark ideas,” feeling “like I’m going crazy.” Recoiling from his mother’s concern, he begs to move in with Dad. But that doesn’t work either: His behavior alarms Beth (particularly once there’s a newborn baby on-site), and much as he wants to help, Peter can’t help occasionally channeling the empathy-free “Just fucking get over it” cold-fishdom of his own father—played by Hopkins in an emotionally brutal single scene that is by far the movie’s best.
The Son wants to explore painful generational rifts and guilts, as well as adolescent angst pushed to the point of suicidal ideations. But it steadily goes wrong, having characters talk in lifeless psychobabble that strains the cast’s earnest efforts, letting credibility unravel further via plot, and behavioral turns that are borderline-ludicrous. McGrath’s key performance is problematic, to say the least. And viewers may find any remaining rooting interest alienated when the script springs about three endings too many. There have certainly been worse movies of late (hello, Babylon), but the ways in which this one’s lofty intentions careen off-rails makes it a particularly dismaying misfire. It opens in Bay Area theaters this Fri/20, including SF’s Kabuki, Opera Plaza, and Stonestown Galleria.
A lighter, but also better, look at difficult parent-child dynamics is offered in When You Finish Saving the World. It’s the first feature as writer-director by Jesse Eisenberg, who’s done a fair amount of writing for other media (theater, The New Yorker, etc.), but is much better known as an actor from movies like The Social Network and Zombieland. Treading into Noam Baumbach territory, it’s a very NYC tale of warring familial self-absorptions: Evelyn (Julianne Moore) is the kind of pious do-gooder unaware that she’s a humorless scold, disliked even by fellow employees at the battered women’s shelter she manages. Only child Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) is a cluelessly entitled brat who performs very silly original songs in a cutesy adenoidal whine to a small online fanbase. In other words, he is all about the kind of navel-gazing frivolity for which she has no patience.
Eisenberg cannily focuses on outside relationships that reveal how out of touch these two characters are, not just with each other but with themselves. Evelyn becomes fixated on Kyle (Billy Bryk), a shelter resident’s saintly son who’s about Ziggy’s age, while the latter fixates on Lila (Alisha Boe), a classmate whose awareness of the world around her is way beyond his grasp. These maternal and peer crush objects are too polite to tell their admirers to shove off—but that message eventually gets through, nonetheless.
Building towards crescendos of misunderstanding and painful realization, When You Finish is a smart, very well-acted seriocomedy that really earns its tentatively happy ending. That’s because we’ve have time enough to wonder if these insufferable personalities can (or even deserve to) be redeemed, so their humbled rapproachment has some punch. It opens Fri/20 at the Alamo Drafthouse and CGV San Francisco.
There’s no lack of dramatic force to Mary Nighy’s Alice, Darling, in which Anna Kendrick’s titular figure has a week-long getaway with best friends Sophia (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn.) But she’s distracted and distant. Eventually they, and we, figure out why: She’s only here by virtue of having lied about a “work trip” to Simon (Charlie Carrick), a live-in boyfriend so controlling and demanding she’s in a constant jitter of paranoid self-doubt. He is not physically abusive, but has insidiously undermined her confidence to a point where the BFFs hardly recognize her.
This is an “intervention” tale of sorts. But Alanna Francis’ script is subtle enough to avoid spelling that out, or indeed showing us much of the manipulation to which “temperamental” artist Simon has subjected Alice. Instead, the focus is on the shellshocked psychological state at which she’s arrived, and the ways in which her friends gradually pry the truth out.
There have certainly been more graphic and/or pulse-pounding depictions of similar Boyfriend From Hell dynamics (like the 2020 Elisabeth Moss-starring Invisible Man), but Alice, Darling gains its considerable power from restraint. And because it raises difficult issues in a non-hyperbolic, just-between-friends way, it’s an ideal movie to see—and discuss—with anyone you fear might be suffering the brunt of a similarly lopsided, dysfunctional relationship. It opens Fri/20 at AMC theaters, including the Metreon.
A different kind of spousal secret links two women in the even more low-key After Love, UK writer-director Aleem Khan’s first feature. Middle-aged Mary (Joanna Scanlan) is disconsolate when longtime husband Ahmed, for whom she converted to Islam, dies of sudden heart failure. Going through his things, she’s shocked to find evidence that he’d been sustaining another relationship across the Channel in France—and upon investigation, that he has a teenage son (Talid Arliss as Solomon) by that Gallic squeeze, Genevieve (Nathalie Richard.)
The latter, who doesn’t know of her lover’s demise yet, is about to move to a new home, and as a result mistakes Mary for a hired temporary house cleaner. Powerfully curious, and reluctant to follow through on the original plan of revealing her identity, Mary rolls with that error, becoming at least a short-term part of her husband’s “other” household.
Needless to say, things get very … complicated. While much more somber in tone, After Love shares When You Finish’s ability to pull a satisfying, conciliatory close out of discordant character dynamics. We may not ever discover exactly why the late Ahmed became a de facto bigamist, but we do learn a great deal about the people he left behind to sort it all out. This astute drama opens Fri/20 at the Smith Rafael Film Center.