“Beautiful Boy” tests the extent to which one can wallow in another person’s grief before it becomes unbearable. The focused story of two parents dealing with their son’s decision to kill several students and then off himself during his freshman year of college, the movie dwells in discomfort. Peeking behind the curtain of a national tragedy, it functions as the cinematic corollary to Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” exploring the ripple effect rather than the cause. Unlike “Elephant,” “Beautiful Boy” lingers in familiar dramatic territory, with a limited perspective that borders on the theatrical. The situation is extraordinary, but the fallout tugs the usual heartstrings with ease.
The darkest moments of “Beautiful Boy” are its introductory scenes, when Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate (Maria Bello) catch word of the shooting through the usual media filters before an officer shows up at their door. Shock sets in, first with a burst of tears and wide-eyed denials — until the couple have no words left, and they sit quietly in their living room contemplating the unexpected disaster. Having disposed of the basic exposition, director Shawn Ku sets the stage for an elaborate look into what comes next.
In the ensuing days, they discuss practical measures (making a statement to the press and closing down their son’s bank account), duck from the prying news trucks outside their home and engage in awkward confrontations with family and friends. These scenes have a kind of ritualistic, procedural feel to them, as if the principle intent of “Beautiful Boy” was only to expose a rare, private mourning period that few people ever have to face.
That’s not say they fail to deliver a familiar kind of emotional involvement, but rather that the entire purpose of “Beautiful Boy” seems to revolve around the satisfaction of morbid curiosity. Bill and Kate drift through a series of uneasy coping mechanisms, at one point attempting to cut themselves off from the world and live in the comfort bubble of a hotel room. The denial period doesn’t last long, and they eventually turn to shouting matches. “You should be defending him,” Kate insists when Bill discusses their son’s misdeeds. “There is no defense,” he shoots back. The script rarely transcends that rudimentary back-and-forth, and at times even acknowledges the simplicity of its design (particularly when Kate calls Bill “an emotionally absent, cliché of a father”).
Still, despite routinely overstating the scenario with rampant scenes of tantrums and sobs, the majority of “Beautiful Boy” is made bearable by its two solid performances. Sheen, burying his British acting credentials with a surprisingly decent American accent, ably wields a tough guy facade while hinting at the frustrations beneath the surface. Bello inhabits the opposite persona, exuding overt fragility and eventually building the strength to face the world again. Watching them act circles around each other provides “Beautiful Boy” with its chief appeal.
The movie suffers from constant repetition, as Bill and Kate cry, fight and dodge their peers time and again. (Only an underdeveloped subplot involving an author’s attempt to exploit the family’s story for his developing book distracts from this cycle.) Ku asks the same questions again and again (What should they do? What *can* they do?) and offers no tangible response. The conclusion suggests that the parents are no more keyed into their kid’s despair than the American public obsessed with it, but they don’t have the luxury of changing the channel.