By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
The families of the victims of a campus massacre deserve our sympathy and prayers for experiencing a parent’s worst nightmare. Yet there are survivors of the same tragedy who may have even more emotional baggage to carry.
Beautiful Boy is about the aftermath of a devastating tragedy facing the parents of a college student who would ordinarily and until now be described by the film’s title.
Bill and Kate Carroll, played by Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, are a middle-class couple — he’s a businessman, she’s a proofreader — struggling through their shaky marriage while their only child, an 18-year-old son, is away as a freshman at college.
They are traumatized when they learn that he has gone on a shooting rampage on his campus and then turned the gun on himself and taken his own life.
We see through the eyes of the shocked and horrified parents as the crime is reported on television, but not shown, and the media circus begins, with the press descending on the home of the bereaved Carrolls and the radio and television talk shows chiming in around the clock.
Bill and Kate must comfort each other, needless to say, and this occurs at a point in their relationship when that is not a natural instinct. So although they find a few moments of surprising intimacy, they also find a way to lay the blame for this unspeakable occurrence at each other’s feet.
The accusations and recriminations do not surface immediately, but surface they inevitably do. How could they not?
During their ordeal, they experience grief and guilt and rage and despair, and confusion when they try to understand how this could have happened, why they had no idea there was trouble, and what they might have done differently. They move through an array of coping mechanisms, none of them quite doing the trick. And how could they?
But there are only questions, and no answers.
The debuting director, Shawn Ku, a Chinese filmmaker from Ithaca, NY, co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Armbruster, recalling the real-life Columbine High School and Virginia Tech massacres by exploring the difficult subject of school violence but not even pretending to explain the “why” of the film’s central plot point. It’s about an act that defies reason and the film treats it just that way.
Bello and Sheen have plenty of fine dramatic work behind them, she in such films as A History of Violence and The Cooler, he in The Queen and Frost/Nixon. In Beautiful Boy, they are superbly nuanced both individually and together, going everywhere the screenplay asks them to with nary a false note, and delivering an astonishing level of what certainly sounds like, looks like, and seems like emotional authenticity.
With subject matter this bleak (recalling another recent, excellent loss-of-a-child drama, Rabbit Hole) it is difficult to recommend this kind of work as a form of entertainment. After all, there can be no happy ending, only an indication that the principals might be able somehow to learn to live with the memories of this low point in their now-changed lives.
Beautiful Boy is tastefully understated and quietly intense. Yet it is its very avoidance of sensationalism that gives it its surprising power.
But a “feel-good movie” it is not. Anything but. It is, however, admirably well-made, skillfully acted, and serious-minded about its subject matter.
Ultimately, the question the viewer must ask is, “Am I glad that I experienced it?” And the answer from this vantage point is an unequivocal yes.
So we’ll struggle to understand 3 stars out of 4 for a haunting what-now? drama about coping with unexplainable loss of life. Beautiful Boy is, in its own way, a beautiful film, but not an easy or a buoyant one.