“Beautiful Boy” is tough in every sense of the term. A film that deals with the aftermath of a school shooting from the perspective of the parents who raised the assailant, it’s the type of subject matter that would rather be left unexplored by most and doesn’t go out of its way to suggest you sympathize with Kate and Bill (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen), a couple in the suburbs who already sleep in separate rooms after their son Sammy (Kyle Gallner) has left for college.
Keeping up the charade of a connected family has become an afterthought for both parents and son — Sammy barely registers interest when Kate calls to suggest they take a vacation together to Miami after school finishes up and Bill takes his dinner alone in the afternoon after telling Kate, “I think you’re putting a lot of pressure on one vacation.” As it turns out, they never do make it to the beach and one of the most interesting aspects of Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku’s script is that the cause of the family’s collective unhappiness isn’t dwelled upon, dissipating from the moment an officer arrives at their door to inform them that there’s been a shooting at their son’s college and Kate’s collapse into tears as soon as she hears ominously, “There’s more…”
As a story, “Beautiful Boy” depends on those two words, perhaps too much as its 100-minute running time wears on, since the grieving process isn’t all that cinematic, especially when it’s in the service of a suicidal mass murderer. Yet as a director, Ku often literally gets out of the way of his performers to show the emotional and logistical steps the parents must take to accept their loss and reclaim the lives before, even if they know what they’re going back to is equally unsettled.
Owing a debt to the likes of Paul Greengrass, the camera hides behind in corners, from the backseats of cars or over the shoulders of its characters, catching moments, rather than seeking them out, an approach that makes Bill weeping in the shower or Kate’s confusion at hearing a description of her son on television feel tastefully observed rather than mawkishly manipulative. The work of cinematographer Michael Fimognari, who also did an impressive job with the low-budget frat hazing thriller “Brotherhood,” unexpectedly leads to the film’s bravura moment – an unmediated fight in a hotel room between the two, who are forced into seclusion by the media attention – which is unedited and unhinged from any stationary position, as if it’s finally out in the open along with the thoughts of the parents who cling onto memories of who they remember they once were while no longer recognizing the person in front of them.
Bello and Sheen are equally fearless in their performances, though the limitations of their characters’ circumstances and ultimately, the predictability of the story conspire to result in something stagey, where their raised voices drown out a gently constructed narrative when a subtle expression would do. There’s no doubt this is what Ku asked for – the film’s introduction with Sammy reading an essay outlining the potential trouble ahead suggests that there will be punctuation marks instead of periods at the end of “Beautiful Boy” and when they start arriving, it becomes obvious the premise has worn thin, leaving Bello and Sheen with little to play but the broadest of emotions. However, they never resort to playing the victim, a quality that sets “Beautiful Boy” apart, even if it can only stay above the fray for so long.
“Beautiful Boy” opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 3rd.