If you were, or still are, a post-millennial creative-type, there’s a chance you channeled the emotions and experiences of events like the Columbine massacre or 9/11 into some form of art. Very few of these ended up being films, books, or songs where audiences found meaning. Several of these people were wise enough to file that screenplay back in the cabinet, never to speak of our attempts at fake grief ever again.
One of those efforts probably best left in the Drawer O’ Bad Ideas is “Beautiful Boy.” The half-ironic, half-disingenuous title refers to Sammy, the son of suburban parents Bill and Kate. If you asked parents Bill and Kate about their lives, they would probably say, perfect, with only a slight whiff of dishonesty. Their college-bound son, however, has a more fractured perception of the world, resulting in a bloody campus shooting capped with a self-inflicted killshot.
Bill and Kate recoil immediately, fixated mostly on the loss of their first son. Bill, a suit-and-tie type with one of those movie jobs that involves presentations, cubicles and spreadsheets, can’t shake the innate horror of the event, and finds anger directed inward at his own shortcomings. Kate, a stay-at-home book editor, opts for denial, refusing to give up hope that her son won’t return home and be mad that his bookshelf was not properly rearranged. The difference between these approaches is a stark political divide between the two, and it says a lot about why this was a marriage that never truly worked in the first place.
Our problem is that we have two fine actors in Maria Bello and Michael Sheen as the parents, and so we never feel compelled to understand how or why they got together in the first place. Sammy’s death serves as a catalyst for the next step of their relationship. For Kate, it’s the hope that new experiences and old sensations would fuel her, as she dotes on her brother’s son. For Bill, that next step might as well lead out the door. These reactions are compelling as self-contained acting exercises, but they do not at all inform the earlier, off-screen relationship between the two. Was Sammy’s birth an accident? How do they compliment or contrast with each other? Or has it been a tense, borderline asexual relationship for the last 15-20 years?
Bello, a strong actress, is compelling, even though she’s played this tune quite a few times already. Sheen is a bit shakier, as each scene feels like a different facet of someone else’s personality. He’s interesting to watch as he approaches grief with a resigned sigh, but his anger management issue feels like an undercooked subplot. The movie rests on these two, with able support from Alan Tudyk, who, as Kate’s brother, delivers a sympathetic portrayal of someone trying to be empathetic despite the fear of indulging reckless behavior. It’s unfortunate that he’s teamed with the unpleasant Moon Bloodgood, who is a one-note caricature as his wife, fearful of Kate’s maternal influence on her son and her household. It’s a reasonably territorial feeling, but Bloodgood goes for catty pettiness, and the result only marginalizes the impact of that story possibility. And a side mention must go to the abysmal Ashton Kutcher-like Austin Nichols, who plays an aspiring author working with Kate. Though he briefly, and intriguingly, appeals to both Kate’s maternal and sensual side, the character makes an implausibly stupid decision that renders the time spent with him as wholly unnecessary.
The tackiest element to “Beautiful Boy” is that it isn’t very tacky, instead measuring as a mostly intimate character drama with a tastefulness that almost skirts condescension. But then you arrive at the conundrum that is Sammy. Not knowing exactly why the boy took up arms against the school, we are left to wonder, exactly who is this character? It’s an intriguing plot development when “Beautiful Boy” implies that Sammy needed to vanish to bring Kate and Bill together again. Unfortunately, that means our title character is a plot device, and given that he’s a kid with a gun, that’s pretty questionable territory. Kate and Bill remain confused as to why their son acted out, but while the movie keeps his ranting pre-murder video mostly mute, understanding the boy’s politics would have gone a long way towards seeing if the seeds had been planted long ago. If the question is, are Bill and Kate to blame, the movie refuses to allow the audience to take sides, providing scant evidence for either stance. Of course, having the kid played by pallid-faced Kyle Gallner is another disappointing shorthand, Sammy following in the tired tradition of young, moody, slack-shoulder movie loners.
Director Shawn Ku does a disservice to the tragedy of his concept, fracturing the narrative, turning each isolated moment into it’s own episode of grief. We only feel the incidence, we don’t feel the moments of lived-in grief, the moments where this story would coalesce through actual human behavior. When Bill and Kate enter a protracted motel room fight late in the film, the handheld camera hovers over the event, moving in and out of focus when the most important element at play is their body language towards each other. In that sequence, we understand how their judgment is impaired by their great loss, and what’s being said is nowhere near as significant as what’s being meant, but robbing us of a chance to visually evaluate the scene robs the audience of a chance to understand what these characters really feel. Because of these decisions, “Beautiful Boy” consistently remains unconvincing. [C-]