We have all read about tragedies like the Virginia Tech shooting spree, but almost always from the point of view of the shooter or his victims. But what about the shooter's parents? What does such a crime do to them?
"Beautiful Boy," directed by Shawn Ku and co-written by Ku and Michael Armbruster, takes off from this premise. When we first meet Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate (Maria Bello), whose moody son Sam (Kyle Gallner), has recently gone off to college, they are on the verge of divorce. Bill is a buttoned-down business executive, Kate is a freelance proofreader of book manuscripts. Sleeping apart, seemingly beyond reconciliation, they can barely restrain their icy disdain for each other.
What at first seems like the prelude to an Ingmar Bergman-esque marital dissection quickly veers into altogether different terrain – at least for a time. The news breaks that a mass shooting has occurred on Sam's campus. Unable to reach him, Bill and Kate fear the worst. Then the bombshell: Sam was the shooter and subsequently killed himself. (All this happens within the first 15 minutes of the film.)
From this point on, the film focuses almost entirely on the parents' seesawing emotional nightmare as it plays out under the glare of media harassment and alternating bouts of reconciliation and recrimination. To escape the camera crews camped outside their suburban home, Bill and Kate hole up with her brother (Alan Tudyk) and sister-in-law (Moon Bloodgood) and their young son (Cody Wai-Ho Lee). In one of the film's most affecting, if predictable, scenes, Kate sings a bedtime song to her nephew that brings back her early days with Sam.
It is only when Bill, who is on leave from his job, and Kate retreat in despair to a cheap motel that they begin to come to terms with the enormity of what has happened to them. Until this point, the wailing and sniping has been kept to a minimum. Then the grief, and, for a while, a rekindled passion, breaks through. Ku isn't glib about it, though. There is nothing simplistic about the emotional resolutions in "Beautiful Boy."
There is, however, despite the intensity of the acting, an obviousness to the scenes as they play out in what often feels like real time. It could be argued that this obviousness is the key to their truthfulness, that we know what's coming because such tragedies follow familiar patterns. But a bit more artfulness might have helped. The clashes in Bergman's movies – I'm thinking especially of "Scenes From a Marriage" – were superficially recognizable but he made them singular through sheer force of observation. His people were both generic and sui generis.
In "Beautiful Boy," Ku manages to take a new-to-movie subject and flatten it into something that, despite its harrowing contours, is often grindingly familiar. Perhaps this is why Ku films in a jiggly, annoyingly semi-documentary style. He's trying to shake up the ordinary.
We know from the way Bill keeps things bottled up inside that it's only a matter of time before he comes apart. (He vents his anger by hitting tennis balls hard against a backboard at a local playground.) We know that Kate will emerge the stronger one. We wait for the moment when the shout goes up, "He's a murderer and we're responsible!"
Bill and Kate may end up blaming themselves and each other for Sam's crackup, which no one could have predicted, but Ku is less inclined to point fingers. This is a reasonable approach and redeems much of the movie's heavy-handedness.
In recent films like "Trust," where a high school daughter, via the Internet, is conned into sex with an adult stranger, or "Rabbit Hole," where a couple's son is killed by a car, the directorial stance toward the parents was vaguely and, I felt, unfairly accusatory. In "Beautiful Boy," the enigma remains an enigma. Grade: B- (Rated R for some language and a scene of sexuality.)