[This review is a reprint of Bill's review that ran during the Dallas International Film Festival]
Beautiful Boy is the story of missed connections between one another. Sometimes these result in arguments or misunderstandings, while other times they go unresolved until they finally boil over and cause a lasting effect. Director Shawn Ku gracefully navigates the heart breaking story of a couples’ loss in the wake of their son committing an act of mass violence at his college and then taking his own life. While the plot may sound conveniently topical, the way in which Ku treats the subject will have ripples for years to come. There isn’t an easy path of recovery to take, and now more than ever, people’s intrusive voyeurism and public remarks can cause even more emotional pain. Hit the jump for the full review.
Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate Carroll (Maria Bello) seem like an ordinary couple from the outside, but the miscommunications they have had over the years have resulted in a relationship on the brink of destruction. Their worries about their son Sam (Kyle Gallner) in his first year of college are mirrored in the way even their neighbor Bonnie (Deidrie Henry) frets over her daughter. Yet, something is amiss and when their son goes on a shooting rampage without a hint of forewarning, they are left to piece together their lives. Through the tragedy their relationship is pushed and pulled as they struggle to answer why this happened all the while learning more about each other than ever before.
Michael Armbruster and Ku co-wrote the drama in an effort to explore the effects of a couple struggling to adequately express their emotions and ideas. The focus of Beautiful Boy is squarely on Bill and Kate, and the narrative never attempts to answer questions of why or how the tragedy occurred. With this ambiguity in place, the film allows the audience to relate to the couple in a broader sense. We’ve all struggled to make our intentions clear, and to watch two masterful actors labor through the same endeavors is emotionally draining. Helping to frame the experience is the excellent cinematography on display that adds even more depth to the themes.
Cinematographer Michael Fimognari gives us an ever-present impression of being part of the calamity occurring on screen. Instead of simply focusing on easy shots of the actors, we get odd angles as if we are onlookers just outside the room. Within the context of the drama unfolding, this perspective heightens the atmosphere and pulls the audience in. Of note is a hotel scene in which we are put in the middle of a heated exchange between Bill and Kate and given one camera to flit between each person as they revolve around the room. The dizzying spectacle left me breathless and unsure of my orientation, as if I were a participant instead of a mere observer.
These flourishes showcase the handle Ku has over Beautiful Boy and why it isn’t just an emotional cash in on a terrible occurrence that has spawned up in the last decade. Of course, all would be for naught if Ku hadn’t secured the wonderful stable of actors on display. Bello and Sheen have a terrific rapport on screen that showcases the peaks and valleys of their relationship. When things are going well, you feel the blossoming hope that they will work out as a couple. But the flaws never seem to vanish and it can be similarly heartbreaking to see them bicker and fight. Although the focus is primarily on the Carrolls, the supporting cast do a tremendous job of giving pity and asking the intrusive questions that likely come from an inability to reason with what happened.
Giving hope in the darkest of times, Beautiful Boy shines a light on a touchy but necessary topic. While our own miscommunications may not have such extreme effects, the way the topic is treated will give you pause. Watching the Carrolls go through the process of discovering each other when they have been married for so long is tragic. However, life goes on and we can either pull together or push each other apart. Through the use of organic cinematography, an eerily truthful script, and powerful performances, Beautiful Boy will make a lasting impression that should give us all something to think about.