One of the beautiful things about cinema is that it forces us to experience events most of us would never have experienced otherwise. It pushes us into uncomfortable situations and, for a short time, allows us to live vicariously through the characters onscreen and view the world as they do, even if their world has been shaken to its core. The intense new drama, Beautiful Boy, is the latest film to give us such an opportunity. It’s not a pleasant movie and it certainly isn’t the way most moviegoers are going to want to spend their time in the theater this summer, but to pass it by would be a mistake. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s timely and relevant and is anchored by two incredibly potent performances from its leads.
For those familiar with tragedies like the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, this story is going to sound quite familiar. It follows Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate (Maria Bello), a married couple in the midst of a separation, as they cope with the fact that their son, Sammy (Kyle Gallner), shot up his university before taking his own life. A media storm ensues as Bill and Kate take refuge with Kate’s brother, Eric (Alan Tudyk), and his wife and child.
I don’t know what it’s like to have something like this happen—few do—but I have to imagine the experience would be something like how it is presented in Beautiful Boy. It may add some plot points for increased dramatic effect (like the aforementioned separation) that may not be indicative of what other parents with stronger relationships have gone through, but it nevertheless feels like Beautiful Boy nails it. As Bill and Kate learn about what happened, they go through all kinds of different feelings: sadness, anger, confusion and, of course, guilt. They begin to place their son’s actions on themselves, wondering what they could have done differently that would have prevented it from happening.
After some time, they do whatever they can to get their minds off it—Kate cleans incessantly and fixes appliances that don’t necessarily need fixing while Bill tries to convince his boss he’s ready to come back to work—but nothing really works. Every time they try to move on, they keep slipping backwards. Though assumedly true to life (moving on from such a tragedy would certainly not be easy), the film still finds itself going in one giant redundant circle because of this. The chain reaction always begins with a willingness to move on before ending on an emotional breakdown after a sequence of similar events in between. However, those emotional breakdowns are powerful and do more than enough to make up for the fact that you’re more or less seeing the same thing happen again and again.
The message in Beautiful Boy comes off as surprisingly unclear, but that could be because the film doesn’t really have one. You could say it argues the importance of love and understanding, or even the all important foundation of family, but if that’s the case, the film is reaching in extreme directions. Most kids will not grow up to do something like this, regardless of how neglectful their parents were. If anything, the film begs parents to listen to their children. In a wonderful early scene, the night before Sammy commits his vile deed, he calls his parents in what seems like one last attempt to reach out to them, but neither senses anything wrong with him, even though there clearly is. Before long, Bill tells his son he’s going to get some sleep and hangs up the phone, only to pick up the newspaper and start reading. He later says, when being questioned by the police, his son sounded “completely normal,” but he really has no idea. He heard him, but he didn’t listen.
Beautiful Boy sounds heavy handed, but it’s not. With two less capable actors onscreen, it could have gone in that direction, but Bello and Sheen are terrific and its because of their raw emotion that the film is able to adequately tackle this difficult subject matter. They and their up-to-the-challenge co-stars show the devastation an event like this causes not just to those directly involved, but also to those around them. While many are quick to point the finger at the parents of a killer, Beautiful Boy shows that the parents are victims too. And that’s a brave stance to take.
Beautiful Boy receives 3.5/5