Film Review – Beautiful Boy
We all live our lives with the knowledge that any day, something awful could happen that would change everything. Some of us try not to think about things like that; others think about it a lot, to try to prepare somehow. But when a life-shattering thing does happen, it is often not at all what had been expected. Beautiful Boy, from director Shawn Ku, shows the aftermath of such an event, an inconceivable thing for which there is no way to prepare, and from which there will be no recovering the life you had before.
Kate (Maria Bello) and Bill (Michael Sheen) are an upper-middle-class couple on the verge of divorce. They sleep in separate beds. They chat like roommates. It’s obvious that this has been the routine for awhile. We see a flashback to happier times, as we hear a story their son, Sam (Kyle Gallner), has written that involves a trip to the beach they all once took, when Sam was a kid. Now he’s a deeply unhappy freshman in college, the despair that emanates from his whole attitude going mostly unnoticed by his parents. It’s the normal difficulty of adjusting to college, they think. They speak to him on the phone about a vacation they’re planning, maybe to Miami. Kate thinks a family trip, like they used to take, will be helpful. She and Bill are going to give it one more go to reconcile. Still, Bill speaks openly to her about apartments he’s been looking at.
All of this would be heavy enough, and contains enough life drama for a serious film on its own. It’s even harder to watch these unhappy people knowing the premise of the film, how little their bickering over how to properly load the dishwasher will matter by the next day. Because Sam is more than just unhappy. Something in him has snapped. The morning after that conversation about Miami, he will walk into a classroom, gun down a number of his classmates, and then turn the gun on himself.
We don’t see the shooting. We see Bill and Kate each hear of the shooting via the news, him rush home from work, Kate remain calm as she tries to contact Sam and reassure their neighbor, whose daughter goes to the same school, that surely their kids are fine. With the sound of someone at the door and the image of two police officers through the frosted glass, Kate’s facade of strength melts away. She sobs that she knew it, she knew he was dead. Bill stands in blank-faced shock. We brace ourselves for the second blow that’s about to come.
From here, the film is about the grief and difficult reflection of the first weeks after this tragedy. I admire the way Ku, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Armbruster, keeps the focus closely on Kate and Bill, even before they discover the truth about their son. The choice not to show the shooting was the right one; the audience knows that horror from real life footage, and it wouldn’t serve the story of these two people to show it. Public reaction to the event, and private reactions among their family, friends, and co-workers, are shown almost entirely from the couple’s perspective. They take it all in, and spit the pain back at each other.
The success or failure of a film like this lies almost completely in the acting, and Maria Bello and Michael Sheen are simply phenomenal. These are two actors who consistently turn in great performances, but the intrinsic difficulty of the roles they play here makes their skill even more impressive than usual. They are relentless in the depiction of all the levels of emotion their characters feel. Kate and Bill seem to try every tactic that occurs to them to deal with this, and hit a wall every time. There is no dealing. And through it all, nothing feels false. It’s like these are real people, continuing on with trying to cope with their grief, wondering if they did something to cause what happened, even as I type this.
The film falters just a bit in a few scenes that meander outside of this focus, when a writer whose work Kate has been proofreading takes an interest in hearing her story. This little subplot feels too neat and tidy in a film that is about a mess that can never be set right. But that’s a minor detour in what is, overall, a stunning exercise in emotional momentum.
I don’t believe that films exist only for escapism. If I did, I wouldn’t dedicate so much of my life to them. But films like this one, films that depict incredible depths of sorrow and grief, are sometimes so hard to watch, it’s worth pausing to consider why it’s worth it. To see these feats of acting, yes, sure. And to consider the sort of what-if circumstances that we hope not to experience in real life. To come away with some new questions to ask of ourselves, or some new kind of empathy for others. When I see a film like this, it makes me look at strangers differently, to want to treat everyone I come across in daily life with more care. This particular story is fiction, but the kind of shattering pain it portrays is real, and something we all could feel someday.
Final Grade: A-