Beautiful Boy is a haunting, deeply disturbing but beautifully made film with depth and range about a dark subject–the aftermath of tragedy faced by the parents of a seemingly perfect son after he goes on a shooting rampage on his college campus and then turns the gun on himself. Movies exploring the subject of school violence are nothing new, but this time the horror is not shown, the killer is absent and the unique perspectives are seen through the eyes of parents who think they are blameless. How much responsibility should they face?
Talented young director Shawn Ku makes his feature-film debut, but the Chinese filmmaker from Ithaca, N.Y., brings a diversity of feelings and life experience to his work. He was a medical student majoring in chemistry at Harvard who became a choreographer and then made a strong impression as an actor, playing a young monk on a spiritual journey in Samsara. Now, in Beautiful Boy, he shows a profound benevolence toward parents struggling to face loss while being assaulted by public indifference and the cold disrespect of the sensation-seeking media. In two of the most devastating performances of the year, versatile Michael Sheen and tough, uncompromising Maria Bello are parents in a marriage that is already hanging on a frayed string when their 18-year-old son shocks the nation and becomes front-page fodder in a shark-feeding press frenzy. Mr. Sheen, who has won praise playing everything from Oscar Wilde’s lover in Wilde to David Frost (Frost/Nixon) and Tony Blair (The Queen), has a flawless American accent and a bottomless reserve of emotions as the father, while the earthy Ms. Bello (A History of Violence) is his rocky wife coming apart at the seams. They’re both so self-involved with their troubled lives they are clueless that their son suffered from intense depression, but isolated from the world by his wreckage, as well as distanced from each other emotionally, they have no choice but to learn how to comfort one another, change gears and move on. Enduring the incessant ringing phones, they construct an uneasy truce, showing the difference between their individual views and their perception of each other as failed parents. Director Ku, who wrote the penetrating screenplay with Michael Armbruster, shows an intelligence and maturity beyond his years as he asks the question: What happened to love?
Since there are no easy answers to this kind of crushing bereavement, Mr. Ku wisely refuses to let us think. Instead, he lets his characters crash to the bottom of despair and think for themselves, while we feel. The result is a tightly constructed psychological game of thrust and parry that centers on the conflict between silent reflection and verbal violence in which everything is examined in hindsight. The performances are fearless, unconventional and memorable. Beautiful Boy is too bleak and wrenching to recommend unconditionally. You need a strong constitution to watch it soberly, but it is a gripping experience that left me weak in the knees.
Running time 100 minutes
Written by Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku
Directed by Shawn Ku
Starring Michael Sheen, Maria Bello