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Beautiful Boy tackles a downbeat subject in the hope of creating an emotionally powerful film experience. It is a small-scale picture starring two prominent name actors, Maria Bello and Michael Sheen. We're familiar with movies about individuals, couples and families dealing with tragedy. Every victim mentioned in grim local news broadcasts leaves behind relatives, friends and lovers that must deal with conflicting feelings of horror, loss and guilt. The emotional walking wounded must be everywhere around us, on every block. When children are involved the social disruption is even worse, as the parents can suddenly feel deprived of the reason they've given themselves for living. Of all the subjects guaranteed to stop a casual conversation, few could be less socially acceptable than to seriously ask a mother or father, "What would you do if someone shot and killed your teenager tonight?"
The answer to that question is "fall apart into fifty emotional fragments", which is what Shawn Ku's movie is about. Beautiful Boy looks at the aftermath of a devastating school shooting from an even more horrific viewpoint. What if the police informed you that your beloved son has been killed in a college massacre -- and that he was the shooter?"
Unhappy upscale marrieds Kate and Bill (Maria Bello & Michael Sheen) are very near breaking up. Their son Sammy (Kyle Gallner) is a freshman at a local college. Kate wants to hold the family together for one more vacation getaway but Bill is already investigating an apartment he can move into. Sammy calls them up but seems depressed; when Kate presses him he says he's just fine. The next morning at breakfast they learn that a rampage on Sammy's campus has left 17 dead, including Sammy, the shooter. Kate and Bill can't answer the phone or the doorbell; they must hide out in their own house when reporters set up camp on their front lawn. Bill doesn't dare go to work. They then move into Bill's brother's house. Still disturbed, Kate "helps out" around the house to such a degree that she gets in the way. The brother's uncomprehending young son is bullied at school for being the cousin of a killer. Kate and Bill leave town and stay in a motel, which only heightens their feelings of alienation. They get drunk and sleep together, but also engage in screaming arguments. When things quiet down Kate goes back to sell the house and Bill tries to return to work. But Bill's suppressed anger erupts, making working impossible. Kate is traumatized by Looky-Loos curious about the "killer house". A writer acquaintance (Austin Nichols) betrays her confidence with the idea of exploiting her misfortune.
If a new movie isn't outright escapist fun these days, it better have an extremely serious, important message. Beautiful Boy certainly qualifies. It is a credible, non-exploitative examination of a no-longer rare American horror. The producers counted on the stars Maria Bello and Michael Sheen for commercial viability, and both actors come through with admirable performances. But the subject matter appears to have gotten the better of writer Armbruster and Ku. The screenplay studiously avoids cheap confrontations by avoiding almost all confrontations. The complications after the mass killing subside on their own. Nobody threatens the killer's parents with violence, no lawsuits appear and the press wanders away after a week or so. We presume that the top news slot has been usurped by a newer outrage. There also seems to be no follow-up from the law. No relatives other than the one brother seem to exist, and Kate and Bill's social ties are such, that with the exception of one neighbor, they might as well be living in limbo.
We're naturally interested in more information about the bigger drama around Kate and Bill, but Beautiful Boy tightly restricts its viewpoint to a narrow part of the experience, their crumbling relationship. The couple remains alienated and bitter toward each other. They draw together and push apart, but we learn very little about their specific problems. We're soon curious to know more about them, about Sammy, about what really happens to people caught in this horrible situation. The movie chooses to stick with the uncommunicative Kate and Bill.
A few scenes tease us with the idea that a theory might be offered to explain the big unknown "Why?" surrounding their son's actions. Kate and Bill have few clues, even though they appear to be caring parents interested in their son's well-being. How attentive can a parent be when the child is away at school? Reaching into the past, Kate remembers browbeating Sammy into singing a song in a class situation, forcing him to fit in socially. We also see Bill's sudden rage at work, and wonder if his calm exterior hides an inner anger, that Sammy perceived and feared. Did the parents inadvertently create a dysfunctional monster? Kate and Bill's exaggerated sense of guilt means little ... we all can remember days when we didn't behave as model parents.
In formal terms, one scene in the show breaks the screenwriter's studied ambivalence toward the causes of Sammy's rampage. An opening flashback sets up an idyllic past on the beach, with young Sammy and his parents in total bliss. Sammy is then seen reading his prose piece about this happy memory in an English class, where nobody pays attention. This scene is not a vague memory or subjective fantasy; it happens. If Beautiful Boy wasn't so unconcerned with solving the mystery, we'd have to assume that Sammy has decided to kill his classmates because they don't care about him. Right now it looks like the fast track to mass murder is becoming an English major. We really know nothing about Sammy, and the film doesn't respond to our natural desire to learn more.
To the shocked parents a tragedy like this would surely seem to come out of nowhere. But that's rarely the case. Most teen mass killers leave wide trails of suspicious behavior in their wake. How did Sammy get the gun, or perhaps amass an arsenal, to conduct his killings? Other teen killers access family stocks of firearms, and proudly film themselves brandishing them. Beautiful Boy prefers to leave all of this a blank, even though the evidence of similar cases show that the teens involved engaged in a lot of secret and dangerous behavior that their parents ignored or weren't around enough to notice. Sammy doesn't fit this profile. His upstairs room looks benign to me. Even if he had morbid posters on the walls or liked guns, it still wouldn't be a sign of incipient violence. The movie prefers to leave Sammy as a haunting blank slate. This allows director Ku to concentrate on the parents, but the situation just doesn't seem credible.
Beautiful Boy's most affecting scenes deal with Kate and Bill reacting in quiet horror to the hatred directed at them by the media. Unable to sleep, Bill turns on the TV to witness an irresponsible pundit encouraging his audience to vent its rage in his direction. That makes us think -- how do we know that those true-crime reality shows calling for blood are directing their lynch-mob rhetoric at the correct target? Beautiful Boy isn't interested in examining the issues it raises. Bill and Kate's deep alienation is only an aggravated case of the general, numbing anxiety felt by any sensitive person in our modern world of "lifestyles". The parents are cut off from the outside world with only hostile and threatening messages coming through the television. That pretty much describes life in much of America today: we hide in our little castles while our perception of reality is shaped by the hysteria on the 6 O'clock news.
Movies of this kind usually affect a positive outlook, and show the survivors pulling themselves together and moving on. The very good The Accidental Tourist uses a similar tragedy as one of several problems troubling an emotionally closed-off man. Feeling Kate and Bill's pain isn't enough, as we must understand them better in order to share their ordeal. Practical moviegoers that we are, we're more likely to admire and maybe envy the couple's comfortable financial condition. When trouble strikes, they can pull up the drawbridge and still keep paying the bills. Most Americans can no longer afford the luxury of extended mourning, let alone a day missed from work -- if they're fortunate enough to have a job.
The show is a fine showcase for the talents of Maria Bello and Michael Sheen, who must have seen great possibilities in the subject matter. Ms. Bello in particular looks physically sickened and drawn. Among the supporting cast only Alan Tudyk as the helpful brother and Moon Bloodgood as the sister-in-law have substantial roles. Making a positive impression near the end of the story is Meat Loaf (Aday), as a sympathetic motel manager.
Anchor Bay's Blu-ray of Beautiful Boy is a flawless encoding of a picture given fine production values, the standard with most any new movie filmed on a real budget. The more conventional visuals switch over to hand-held work to cover the improvised argument scenes. The commentary with co-writer/director Shawn Ku, editor Chad Galster and cinematographer Michael Fimognari covers the efforts of the small crew to make these scenes seem as real as possible. Director Ku communicates his sympathetic attitude toward the subject matter.
A couple of deleted scenes are included as extras. In one Kate ill-advisedly approaches the mother of one of his son's victims, and receives a quiet slap and a curse for her trouble. I can't fathom the reasoning behind pulling this moment out of the movie. Director Ku is truly serious about making his show an almost entirely muted, interior experience.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Beautiful Boy Blu-ray rates:
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