Beautiful Boy tries to be a lot of different things. It tries to be about coping with extreme loss, picking up the pieces of a broken relationship, the uncomfortable realizations that come with being a parent, and more. When I first heard about the film, I was deeply worried that it was another one of those films, like Revolutionary Road and Rabbit Hole, that try so hard to present a bleak, unpleasant situation that the only reaction that is elicited is feeling, well, bleak and unpleasant. And don’t get me wrong, given the subject matter, Beautiful Boy is really bleak, and, at times, very unpleasant.
This is largely avoided as a result of Maria Bello and Michael Sheen’s fantastic performances. Beautiful Boy, if nothing else, is a prime example of two of the finest actors of their age doing some career-high work. I only hope that more people will be able to see it in the coming months.
Bill (Sheen) and Kate (Bello) are in the waning days of their marriage. With their son Sam (Kyle Gallner) off at college, they have finally come to terms with the fact that they no longer love each other and are separating soon. All that changes when Sam goes to school, kills several of his classmates and teachers, then kills himself, with only a raving video as an explanation of his horrific actions, drawing parallels from the actions of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. They instantly find themselves trying to figure out why their son did something so horribly, seemingly out of the blue, and do their best to pick up the pieces of their own relationship as they go.
What makes Beautiful Boy such a success is that it is, in essence, a character study of this broken couple. It’s not a search for the meaning of why Sam did what he did, though there is some searching, or some kind of melodrama where they all realize Sam got molested as a youth. In a situation like this, there are no easy answers. Most of the time, there may not be answers period. The filmmakers realize this very well, and the film is better for the fact that it’s simply about a man and a woman trying to cope with horror, rather than trying to define said horror.
None of this could be accomplished without the amazing work of Maria Bello and Michael Sheen as the two leads. Both expertly present two sides of the fractured puzzle that is their marriage. Kate is, on the surface, a quintessential supermom. She always seems on top of everything, and always ready to help correct. As the film goes on, we slowly begin to learn that she’s not exactly the mother she appears to be, that she pushed her son to succeed at every opportunity to an extreme usually found in the so-called “tiger moms.” She makes this realization about herself as the film goes on, and we slowly get to see her own preconceived notions about herself fall away. Michael Sheen initially seems to play Bill as a kind of stock emotionally-distant father, speaking to his son in short, easily ended bursts. He becomes the “practical” one, trying to deal with the issues of the press, tending to his son’s final affairs, and doing it all quickly enough to move on. There’s a certain rage in him, though, that bubbles up all too often. He seems to recognize the sort of man that he is but is too stubborn to see how it might have affected his son until it becomes tragically too late.
I also love the notion that these two characters, despite establishing that they haven’t really known or loved each other for some time, are not forced back together because of their shared tragedy. That would be too easy, and a little uncomfortable, frankly. What brings them together, ultimately, is the fact that they are the only two people in the world that truly understand what the other is going through. They are in such a unique and terribly circumstance that they have no way of keeping apart from each other, less they allow the gravity of their situation to destroy them. This is the beauty of the story being told here. You can see movies where tragedy brings people together every day. This film goes far enough to show why such a thing could happen somewhere other than magical movie land. There are some occasional leaps in logic, but that undercurrent of the relationship beginning to sustain itself again really works terribly effectively, especially when they find themselves lapsing back into their old hurtful ways. It becomes utterly heartbreaking to watch them fight, as a result.
About the only downside to the film is the cinematography. DP Michael Filmognari goes for a very cinéma vérité look to the film, creating that fly-on-the-wall sense that comes with that sort of filmmaking. What it does, though, is create a certain distance between the audience and the subjects on screen. The intention is to make you feel like you’re intruding onto something very private. This is a powerful feeling, and it would have worked if not for a fair amount of, frankly, mediocre camera work within the scenes. There’s a lot of shaky, handheld work where something more stable might have suited better. The intentions behind all the work are clear, but the execution is flawed.
Beautiful Boy is not an easy movie to get through. There’s a lot of fairly oppressive subject matter going on here, and it’s not going to be for everyone. Though really, you shouldn’t be surprised that a movie about the aftermath of a school shooting is a downer. If you come into this film looking for a fairly wonderful character study with two wonderful performances, you won’t be disappointed.