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Dustin Putman

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Beautiful Boy  (2011)
3 Stars
Directed by Shawn Ku.
Cast: Maria Bello, Michael Sheen, Alan Tudyk, Moon Bloodgood, Kyle Gallner, Austin Nichols, Bruce French, Meat Loaf Aday, Deidrie Henry, Cody Wai-Ho Lee, Bella King, Darren O'Hare.
2011 – 100 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for some language and a scene of sexuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 2, 2011.
When sudden tragedy strikes, as it is apt to do at some point in all our lives, it is basic human nature to question, "Why?" Might it have been avoided or changed? Could something have been said or done to alter the outcome? Is it pointless to even ask, "What if...?" since there's no way to turn back the clock? Indeed, if a person has any hope in moving out from the abyss of grief, it is imperative that he or she find a way to work through the pain, guilt, anger and confusion that come along with it. Life goes on, after all. The feature debuts of writer-director Shawn Ku and co-writer Michael Armbruster, "Beautiful Boy" is a frank, melancholy drama, but it's not morose. Treading on the ground of subject matter that usually gets a soapy Lifetime treatment, Ku acknowledges all of the darkness of his story, but also suggests that a ray of solace is possible, and probable. Like 2010's "Rabbit Hole" before it, the film's depiction of a married couple in emotional peril rings true rather than maudlin, sustained at a riveting pitch through the consummately raw, sympathetic performances of its two leads.

Married couple Kate (Maria Bello) and Bill (Michael Sheen) live under the same roof but not in the same bed, going through the motions of a relatively normal, happy family as they plan an upcoming summer vacation, but with little interest left in their relationship. When they speak to 18-year-old son Sammy (Kyle Gallner), away at college, on the phone, it is obvious something is very wrong. He sounds distant and withdrawn, but also pensive. Bill hangs up quickly after Sammy gives a few one-word answers, not paying much attention to the way he's acting. Kate senses something is plaguing him, but doesn't press it. It's a conversation they will replay in their minds over and over after they learn the next day that Sammy has died in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. He wasn't one of the victims, though, but the perpetrator, ultimately killed by a self-inflicted gunshot.

"Beautiful Boy" isn't about the awful event in question, but about the aftermath as told from the points-of-view of parents who must not only deal with the death of their son, but the unthinkable knowledge that he was also responsible for twenty-one other lost lives. It's a film that might have become sensationalized in the wrong hands, but director Shawn Ku tackles the material with an uninhibited sensitivity. Parents of young killers are often demonized by the media, viewed as uncaring and neglectful since they failed to spot the worrisome signs ahead of time. No one, however, can blame them more than they blame themselves. Once the outright denial goes away, Kate and Bill face all the ensuing stages of the grieving process on an unenviably heightened level, forced to reassess every last detail about their parenting and every moment spent with their child. With the story becoming national news—a vitriolic video recording that Sammy made right before he went on his shooting spree is all over the television—and reporters practically camped outside, they have no choice but to sneak away lest they become recluses in their home. Kate's brother Eric (Alan Tudyk) welcomes them to stay with him and his family, wife Trish (Moon Bloodgood) and six-year-old son Dylan (Cody Wai-Ho Lee), a living arrangement that becomes increasingly suffocating as Kate and Bill grow restless trying to hold in their darkest feelings amidst loved ones who can't quite understand what they are going through.

To truly come to terms with what has happened, Kate and Bill may have to finally face each other and the crumbled state of their own marriage. As honest and candid as the picture is from the start, it is in the latter half where things complicate for the better. Leaving her brother's house, they drive listlessly around, barely a word spoken between them, the evening sun setting on the horizon. Once they've checked into a dinky motel, a restaurant visit for dinner leads to a breakdown that devastatingly hits home. Surrounded by people quietly and cheerfully going about their everyday lives, Kate is left to understand that she is no longer them, and her son is no longer on this earth. It's a powerful moment, everything that needs to be said stunningly read across the face of Maria Bello (2010's "Grown Ups"). In roles that must have been of a most dramatically demanding nature, Bello and Michael Sheen (2010's "Tron: Legacy") stun with tour de force performances. A scene where they experience a reconnection—and a few moments of relief from their heartache—while spending the night in their motel room is lovely in its ability to give the characters time to let their guard down and smile. One of the key elements in getting over grief is the ability to laugh—a human trait that director Shawn Ku is surely right to include. Likewise, a heated confrontation between them later on is shattering (and fearlessly acted), but also necessary. How else can they move on if they do not let out all that is pent up inside them?

"Beautiful Boy" is not groundbreaking in the terrain it navigates, but it is accurate. So many tricky moments hit the mark—e.g., Bill's disastrous first day back at his office job; text editor Kate's run-in with a friendly client, who, it turns out, has an ulterior motive—that when the odd one doesn't (like the old stand-by of a character crying in the shower) it can partially be attributed to the gritty, vérité-style cinematography by Michael Fimognari. Often shooting its subjects from a cracked doorway or behind an object in the foreground so as to mimic that of eavesdropping, the hand-held camerawork moves the film away from resembling a glossy telepic and gives the goings-on an added immediacy, but it also calls too much attention to itself at certain points. A nice middle ground would have been more effective; it is the characters the viewer should be getting lost in, not the aesthetics that sporadically remind us a movie is being watched. Also a slight but noticeable oversight is the question of Kate's and Bill's respective families and relatives. With the exception of Eric, no mention is ever made of a parent, a sibling, or any aunts and uncles, whom they would naturally be in contact with after such an ordeal. Perhaps this decision was just to keep the number of characters low and intimate, but it still called attention to itself.

Its examples of artifice able to be counted on one hand, "Beautiful Boy" does, indeed, feel like real life unraveling on the screen, and the lack of compromise afforded Kate and Bill ensure that the process of healing be glimpsed faintly but with certainty by the final scenes. Losing a child is bad enough that losing one whom the parents aren't sure they ever authentically knew is practically unfathomable. Kyle Gallner (2011's "Red State"), seen only briefly but unforgettably as Sammy, haunts the rest of the film. When he reads a highly personal story to his disinterested classmates in the opening scene, the point is made that he's unquestionably a talented writer with a lot going for him. Alas, no one else seems to notice him or his soul-bearing prose. He soon changes this, and his mom and dad are left to pick up the shattered remains of the dreams they had for him. If only Sammy could be asked if it was worth it, but he can't. He's no longer there at all.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman