Peter is a highly successful professional who has important meetings about financial matters in a big office with impressive views of the Manhattan skyline. He is married to Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and they have a baby named Theo. They live in a beautiful apartment with tastefully exposed brick walls. As the movie begins, Beth is soothing Theo to sleep with a lullaby and Peter is smiling at them. They are a perfect, happy family. But then Kate (Laura Dern) rings the doorbell. She is Peter’s first wife and she has bad news about their 17-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath). For the past month, he has not shown up at school.
Nicholas moves in with Peter, Beth, and Theo and starts at a new school. Peter is convinced that things are turning around for Nicholas. They are not.
There is nothing more painful than having a child who is suffering, and perhaps it is understandable that Peter and Kate are in denial about how severe the struggle is for Nicholas. But in 21st-century Manhattan it is unimaginable that wealthy parents would be so clueless, self-involved, and disconnected from the available resources to bungle their response so badly. There are some affecting scenes, especially one where Kate, with Dern heartbreakingly vulnerable, tells Peter she feels that she has failed. And Hopkins, as Peter’s icy father, is intriguingly narcissistic.
The scene is intended to connect to the rest of the story and illuminate Peter’s conflicts and his tendency to view his son as a barometer of his success. But it falls short. The film does occasionally give us a sense of the relentless impact of mental illness on caregivers; how a sick family member, especially a child, crushes the spirit of those who care the most. When he finally loses his temper, though, it is more about his feelings than Nicholas’ and his desperate attempts to essentially order his son to get better are portrayed with more sympathy from Zeller than they deserve from us.