No, no, Beautiful Boy is not just a reference to my baby pictures, but to the recently released film starring Michael Sheen and Maria Bello. They play a couple whose marriage is on the fritz. When the news reports that there was a shooting at their son's college, the police arrive to tell them their son was not only killed but was the shooter as well. Now, all of this has the makings to be an instant big-misunderstanding comedy classic but instead we're given a poignant and timely piece about parents losing a child they realize they never even knew.
There are plenty of movies made about parents dealing with the loss of a child. Some good (Ordinary People), some bad (The Crossing Guard), some decent (The Door in the Floor), all really dark. In light of the fairly recent--perhaps recent isn't the proper word; these incidents have happened more frequently in the last ten years--school massacres, Beautiful Boy adapts to this trend (again, this doesn't feel like the right word to use) and gives us an original feature and a new angle on familiar view; yes, we're dealing with parents losing their child, but their child was a monster. The matter of this complication/device working will make the film float or flounder, and while it does largely float, there are some holes in the bow.
Beautiful Boy's greatest strength is also its biggest flaw: its singular focus on the parents. Bill and Kate are strong characters, and their different viewpoints and different relationships with their son made their opinions of the events unique. By keeping the focus on so few characters, the film doesn't go off on tangents and the story remains tight. Bill is possessed with giving his family the best life possible. He's a workaholic and in his only scene involving his son, their conversation is brief and limited to the bare essentials of checking in with someone: "How are you feeling? How's school?" Bill is able to accept the fact that his son is a murderer much sooner than Kate who refuses to bring the topic up. Their relationship was coming apart, and before the shooting, Kate was planning a family getaway for the summer which she hoped would save her marriage. This is really her movie, as she eventually comes to understand and accept that fact that her son was a killer, that there was something wrong with him.
As an aside, Sam's poem at the beginning of the film plays are larger thematic role than we're led to believe. In it he describes an anthropomorphized beach. This beach meditates on a boy and girl playing on his sand and in his water, noting the fun time that their having. This beach sees their future which will not be a happy one, that the moment they share now is going to be lost in time, replaced by tragedy and sadness. Sam is the beach. He is realizing the impact that he murder/suicide on his parents--who in their younger days were much happier. The boy and girl will never see the beach again; Bill and Kate are the boy and girl who will see sadness and tragedy.
As I said earlier, the focus of the film is its greatest strength, but also it's weakness. The fact that Sam exists only as a peripheral character never truly makes him real; his crimes are only referred to but never seen, so the tragedy is never made to seem real. Sam himself is underdeveloped, and that's unfortunate because the way the film opens--with his poem and a video of him as a child at the beach--powerfully. I wish they had added one or two more of these home video moments to give us a greater look at their lives before all of this happened. It would have fleshed Sam and the family out more.
(We will see more depth in the character of a school shooter fairly soon when I review the novel and adaptation of Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin.)
Beautiful Boy also falters at a pivotal moment. Bill and Kate purposely block themselves off from the media coverage--a realistic and sensible move--but unfortunately, we are blocked from it as well. This only becomes a problem once, and as I said, it's at a pivotal moment. In Sam's dorm there was a video that was eventually leaked to the media (though I imagine Bill Maher was probably already blaming conservatives before the blood dried on the pavement). The video was of Sam, a kind of manifesto that explained all of his feelings and his anger and why he decided on this rampage. Unfortunately, when Bill turns the television of, in the middle of Sam's first sentence, we never hear any more of it. It's a copout and a disservice to the audience. Motive, sometimes, is very important; to see Bill and Kate react to all of this would have been an important discussion in a powerful scene.
You'll notice the tagline in the above poster: "An Unconventional Love Story." That gave me pause when I first noticed it, but it does make sense to me now. The love story really has very little to do with the relationship between Bill and Kate, but their relationship to Sam. The story is their struggle to come to terms with who he was and what he had done. It was about forgiving Sam and by extension, themselves. Yes, Sam was a monster, but we was our son and we love him. By the end of the film, they do confront what their son had done, and they confront their feelings toward each other. No, it seems that they made not love each other any more, but they need each other. A sad but understandable situation.
I usually only mention performances when they're really good or really bad. The primary actors (Michael Sheen, Maria Bello, and Kyle Gallner) are all pitch perfect, and should be recognized in some way for their roles--Bello in particular.
Beautiful Boy is like Bad Lieutenant in the way that it is extremely dark, and it's really only a movie you can watch once because you cannot find any enjoyment that would make you want or need to see it again. It is, however, a satisfying story--it doesn't treat the audience like a moron; nor does it preach a message or contrive a saccharine ending--that makes it worth that single viewing just for the nuanced writing and acting alone.
Beautiful Boy: 3 1/2 out of 5.