Friday, June 3, 2011

Movie Review: Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy *** ½
Directed by: Shawn Ku.
Written By: Michael Armbruster & Shawn Ku.
Starring: Michael Sheen (Bill Carroll), Maria Bello (Kate Carroll), Moon Bloodgood (Trish), Bruce French (Harry), Kyle Gallner (Sam Carroll), Meat Loaf (Hotel Clerk), Alan Tudyk (Kate’s brother).

I have seen many movies about school shootings in the years since Columbine truly brought the issue to the forefront. Some of them have been great (Elephant, Zero Day, Polytechnique), some have been bad (Home Room, The Life Before Her Eyes, Dark Matter), some have been downright exploitive (Duck: The Carbine High Massacre), but aside from a part of the under seen movie American Gun, I haven’t seen a movie deal with an incident the same way that Shawn Ku’s Beautiful Boy does. This is not a movie about the shooting itself – which is never portrayed – or about the shooter, who we barely see, or about the victims or the community struggling in the aftermath. Instead it focuses solely on the parents of the shooter – who are just as confused and saddened as the rest of the community when their son goes on a shooting spree, killing 17 people before turning the gun on himself. The film doesn’t try to answer why the shooting happened, it doesn’t assign blame, it just looks at this couple – who seem like such normal, likable people who tried their best with their son, and are now struggling to figure out how it all went so wrong.

The key to the movie is the performances by Michael Sheen and Maria Bello – both of whom are excellent in what could not have been easy roles. When we first meet them – the day before the shooting – they seem like any other couple who have been married for years, and are now going through problems with empty nest syndrome as their only child has gone off to college. There is even talk of divorce, or at least separation, but they are trying to work things out. They talk to their son (Kyle Gallner) briefly on the phone that night, and despite the fact he seems a little sullen and withdrawn, they chalk it up to normal teenage angst. The next day when they hear that there has been a shooting at their son’s school, they race home to comfort each other, and hope that their son is okay. Their worst fears are realized when a cop shows up at the door and tells them that their son is dead – and then goes further and explains that not only is he dead, he was the shooter. In their worst case scenario, they never thought that was possible, and the information throws their already disjointed world into total chaos.

How is this couple supposed to make sense of what happened? How are they supposed to mourn for their son, when he has become the most hated kid in America? How did things go so terribly wrong, and why didn’t they see it coming? It doesn’t help that the media has camped out in front of their house that Sheen’s work has told him to take a month off to deal with things that they cannot feel safe in their own home, and end up driving their family insane when they stay with them. It also doesn’t help that every time they turn on the TV, they see someone talking about their son, or see the video of him strapped with guns and going on a wild rant where he accuses everyone else of having blood on their hands, but never really explaining his own motives.

The film is unremittiningly bleak for its entire running time. It doesn’t let the audience off the hook at any point, and it forces to simply sit there and watch as these two people try to hang onto each other for support, but find that even that isn’t enough. What happened is too big for either of them to deal with on their own, and yet having the other person there doesn’t seem to help either. They try their best, but something is simmering underneath the surface – and when it finally comes out, in one of the most painful scenes in recent memory, and both start accusing the other, there is no catharsis, because in reality they do not really solve anything. The more they search for an answer, the less likely they are to come up with one.

The heroes of the movie are Sheen and Bello, who are not afraid of this dark material, and dive headlong into it. They succeed in making these characters normal – they could be your friends, neighbors or family members – and then borough deeper into the characters and their pain.

Beautiful Boy doesn’t seek to solve anything, doesn’t try to explain why this happened, or assign blame to anyone. Instead it simply confronts us with these characters and makes us feel their pain. The parents of school shooters are often the people most shrouded in mystery – the Harris’ and the Klebolds for example (the parents of the Columbine shooters) have only given one interview between them in the more than a decade since the shooting – and their depositions in the lawsuits filed by the victims’ families will not be made public for another decade plus. It is impossible to know what these parents think or feel or go through – but Beautiful Boy does a wonderful job of trying to show us. The result is a movie that feels painfully real.

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