Film Review: “Beautiful Boy”

by Jason LeRoy on June 17, 2011

Maria Bello in BEAUTIFUL BOY

starring: Maria Bello, Michael Sheen, Kyle Gallner, Alan Tudyk, Austin Nichols, Moon Bloodgood, Meat Loaf

written by: Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku

directed by: Shawn Ku

MPAA: Rated R for some language and a scene of sexuality.

Beautiful Boy is a wrenching character study that addresses one of the most incessantly asked questions after a school shooting: what about the shooter’s parents? In this case, the parents are Kate (Maria Bello), a proofreader, and Bill (Michael Sheen), who has a mid-level office job. Their son, Sammy (Kyle Gallner), is a college freshman. As the film begins, we get our only glimpse into their family dynamic before it will be shattered forever: Sammy calls home and is conferenced into a call with both parents, who are in separate rooms. Kate pushes Sammy on his studies and where he wants to go on an upcoming family vacation, while Bill remains quietly supportive, if a bit cold. Sammy sounds sad and despondent, but not unusually so. It is an unremarkable call.

The next morning, Sammy goes on a shooting rampage at his university that leaves many dead, students and teachers alike, before turning the gun on himself. Kate and Bill, whose marriage was already a bit strained (they have separate bedrooms), are thrust into an excruciating crucible of pain: grief at losing their only child, shock that he took his own life, horror that he killed so many others, and of course the Big Questions: is their parenting ultimately responsible for his actions? Did they do this to him? Is it all their fault?

Kate and Bill go into hiding at the home of her brother and sister-in-law (Alan Tudyk and Moon Bloodgood) to avoid the media that are camped out on their lawn. The film has a realistic grasp on the role of the media in modern-day tragedies: shortly after the killings, Bill turns to Kate and explains why they need to issue a statement. Allusions are made to the 24-hour news cycle and the responses of cable news pundits. And, eventually, the media’s short attention span allows Kate and Bill to tentatively return to their home.

Despite being titled Beautiful Boy, this film is not about Sammy, or even about school shootings. We do not see the shooting (mercifully), nor do we meet survivors, parents of victims, etc. This is a film about a fading marriage that is put through an apocalyptic trial. Each time that Kate and Bill try returning to their lives and jobs, grasping desperately at some sort of normalcy or stability or productivity, they are rebuffed by well-meaning people who don’t realize they are only making things worse. This pushes them further into the claustrophobia of their grief, deeper into withdrawn seclusion, which in turn forces them to address the issues in their marriage and the deep-seated things they don’t want to say to each other about Sammy.

As with any character study, Beautiful Boy – the feature-length theatrical debut of writer/director Shawn Ku — is all about the performances. Bello, one of the most underrated actors of her generation, nails her part with every last ounce of rage and remorse that I’d expect from her. She is a live wire. Sheen seems miscast at times, although the character is probably trickier on the page; he is silent for most of the film, not reacting visibly to the things happening around him. But when it’s his turn to finally explode, he is electrifying.

It might seem odd to take something as vast, tragic, and endemic of America’s ills as a campus massacre, and then narrow the impact scope so specifically down to something that might seem trivial in comparison: a marriage. But Beautiful Boy doesn’t attempt to answer the big questions. Its ambitions are more modest, if still daunting – create a truthful depiction of two people being plunged into a deep tunnel of despair by possibly the most unimaginable news any parent could hear, and then fighting and clawing and scratching through it until they finally see a hint of light in the distance.

Read Also:

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: