Beautiful Boy (United States, 2011)June 02, 2011
When a murderous rampage occurs involving a high school or college-age perpetrator, the initial spotlight shines upon the killer. The usual questions - notably "Why?" - are asked. Inevitably, others, especially the parents, will be pulled into the discussion. Speculation, often misrepresented as fact, will question the upbringing and family life of the murderer and the mother and father will be forced to cope not only with the death-by-suicide of their child but with the perception that they are unindicted co-conspirators. Beautiful Boy, although a fictional account, postulates how such a tragedy might impact the parents of a killer, who are assailed not only by grief but by an almost overpowering sense of guilt.
When children are young, it can be said that parents truly know them. As they grow, however, and begin to withhold thoughts, ideas, and motivations, they become individuals. Tracing the underlying reasons needed to answer "Why?" in the case of an act of carnage can be a difficult and perhaps unachievable task. Parental responsibility, while potentially a contributory factor, can be used as a scapegoat. In Beautiful Boy, the college freshman who plots and executes a Virginia Tech-style spree of carnage, is the same boy loved and nurtured through his first 18 years by his parents. For them, the disconnect is powerful and the question is not "Why?" but "How?" How can their "beautiful boy" have taken this unthinkable step to solve his problems? And, despite the fact that he was living in a college dorm and not at home, how could they not have known?
The film opens with clips of the family - father Bill (Michael Sheen), mother Kate (Maria Bello) and son Sam (Kyle Garner) - in happier times. Cut to the present. Bill and Kate are on the road to divorce. Although they cohabitate under the same roof, they have moved into different bedrooms and live largely separate lives. The one thread still binding them is Sam. One night, he calls. In many ways, it's the kind of regular call parents often get from kids living away from home. This one has a weird vibe, however. For no apparent reason, Sam begins babbling about the geometry of snowflakes. Bill, who is preoccupied, notices nothing out of the ordinary and says goodnight to his son. Kate experiences a momentary misgiving but she too puts it out of her mind. The next day, Sam records an angry message on his hard drive, leaves his dorm room, marches into a full classroom and shoots a lot of people before putting a bullet into his own brain. Bill and Kate hear about the tragedy on the news but they don't know the full extent until a police officer arrives at their front door.
Beautiful Boy is not about Sam. It's not about his motivations or the trigger that propelled him into the death spiral. It's not an examination of his last days. We are provided with glimpses of him through flashbacks and snippets of his final video, but the question of "Why?" is not answered, nor is attempting to do so within the scope of director Shawn Ku's feature debut. Beautiful Boy is about Bill and Kate and what happens to their already troubled marriage once the glue holding it together is removed. It's about the poison that seeps into their blood as they debate the endless unknowable about whether there was anything they could have done. If they had noticed how troubled Sam was during his final call and acted upon that realization, would it have made a difference?
The performances of lead actors Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, both of whose resumes exhibit a willingness to take on difficult roles, are top-notch. Their efforts generate an understanding of their characters as they swing from emotion-to-emotion across a wide spectrum. The acting never sounds a false note, even on those rare occasions when the screenplay, credited to Ku and Michael Armbruster, treads into forced, artificial, or clichéd territory. (The film's ending is problematic, although it's difficult to say whether this is because of scripting deficiencies or choices made in the editing room.) Especially noteworthy is a scene in which Kate confronts a writer who has wormed his way into her confidence. There's no anger in her reaction, just a weary sadness. Supporting performances are provided by Alan Tudyk and Moon Bloodgood as Kate's brother and sister-in-law, and by Meat Loaf Aday as a motel owner with an unvarnished opinion.
Beautiful Boy is a grim, thought-provoking drama. It aims to be both heartbreaking and (in an odd way) inspirational, although the former is more convincingly conveyed than the latter. It's about pain and healing, injury and forgiveness. Some of the feelings it evokes recall the recent Rabbit Hole, about parents failing to cope with the accidental death of a young son, but Beautiful Boy is a more clinical autopsy. The characters are kept at arm's length, perhaps because bringing the audience in closer would create too painful an experience. Nevertheless, even filtered through its distant approach, Beautiful Boy is challenging. The film's strength lies not in what can be found in the screenplay but in the questions that run through the minds of viewers as they experience Bill and Kate's story. I suspect parents will react more strongly to this movie than non-parents. It's hard to imagine anyone, however, leaving the theater without a more thoughtful perspective when considering that, in situations such as the one depicted here, the collateral damage is more far ranging than one might initially suppose.
Beautiful Boy (United States, 2011)
Cast: Michael Sheen, Maria Bello, Alan Tudyk, Moon Bloodgood, Kyle Gallner, Meat Loaf Aday
Screenplay: Michael Armbruster & Shawn Ku
Cinematography: Michael Fimognari
Music: Trevor Morris
U.S. Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment