Shawn Ku's "Beautiful Boy" played on eight screens across the country this year at best and quietly makes its way to DVD, where hopefully it will get the audience it deserves. As a person takes with watching quite a few movies for both review and the sheer love of film, I sometimes find myself happening upon a film that for better or worse unsettles me, but very rarely does that feeling last much beyond the time following the closing credits. "Beautiful Boy" unsettled me to the core, so much so, that it took me two attempts to get through the movie. While containing no graphic on-screen violence, the story of a broken husband and wife attempting to make sense of their college age son's decision to go on a shooting spree and kill himself, is one of the finest (possibly unintentionally) dramatic psychological horror (the horror is the uncomfortable reality that permeates from start to finish) films of the past 15 years or more. Led by dual powerhouse performances from leads Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, it's very apparent why "Beautiful Boy" didn't get a wide release; simply and sadly put, it will destroy your day after viewing it and leave the way you view this very real crime irrevocably changed.
The boogeymen in "Beautiful Boy" are two-fold, the first being the meek Sammy (Kyle Gallner), whose on-screen time likely doesn't break the double digits, minutes wise and consists of a cryptic, melancholy phone call to his mother and brief video recordings left on DVDs, post-mortem. You never see this young man carry out the act, which makes the tense first act of the film all the more heart wrenching. It unfolds with stark realism as the distant Bill (Sheen) and Kate (Bello) go off to their respective jobs, where they learn the news, likely as so many others in real life, via news broadcasts. Ku lets the camera quietly linger as unanswered phone calls cause Bill and Kate to grow more physically anxious and when there world comes crumbling apart from a police visit, there's no turning back and the viewer becomes an invisible observer to an already fractured family set ablaze with no explanation.
A more "mainstream" film would take this premise and end with both parents reconciling to help change the world through some foundation or grand speech, but "Beautiful Boy" operates in a real world with real rules and those expecting definite answers will be left as cold as Bill and Kate, who must try and find someway to go on, haunted by their own personal failings and the film's secondary source of conflict, an angry, ill-informed public, who quickly blame Sammy's upbringing and aren't able to witness what goes on behind closed doors.
The film lives and dies by the strength of its cast, with Sheen and Bello handling most of the screen time. The two pros turn in award caliber performances, with each handling their grief in eerily realistic manners. Kate openly weeps and tries to sleep like we would expect from a mother, while the work obsessed Bill soldiers on publicly trying to go back to work, deliver a statement of condolence, and only when alone in a shower (a fantastically shot scene I might add), does he weep for his son, who to the world at large is a monster. Trying to keep up appearances can only last so long and "Beautiful Boy" runs the rest of its course as a finely crafted character drama that emphasizes that life isn't fair nor happy.
"Beautiful Boy" is one of the best films of 2011 that no one has seen, but it's an experience not to be taken lightly. There are no twists and turns, just pure emotion, brought to life by the great cast, which also includes Alan Tudyk and Moon Bloodgood as family members caught in the middle of public outrage and sympathy. Writer/Director Shawn Ku shows great promise with this feature-length cinematic debut and those willing to invest themselves into a very unhappy but necessary film will come out for the better, even if the initial feelings you're left with are sorrow and a tinge of uneasiness.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sports a soft transfer peppered with some mild grain/digital noise. Colors are consistent and reflect a deliberate somber color palette that emphasizes the themes of the film.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track is mixed a bit heavy on the dialogue side with minimal use of the surrounds, which leaves the film's score and effects pushed back a little more than they should be. Overall, sound reproduction is crisp but could be better even for such a "low-key" film. A Spanish mono track is included as well as English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
A few minutes of deleted scenes are included that show Ku chose to excise a few cliché elements from the story. The highlight of the disc is a fine commentary track from Ku, editor Chad Galster, and cinematographer Michael Fimognari that is a good mix of technical information and thematic discussion.
"Beautiful Boy" is story wise a very accessible film, but not for the emotionally faint of heart. The performances and bluntness of the script will leave you heartbroken and like the characters, trying to rationalize the unthinkable. Sadly, the film will go unnoticed come awards time, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't find the audience it deserves on DVD. Highly Recommended.