- - Thursday, June 16, 2011

Shawn Ku’s haunting, emotionally taut new film, “Beautiful Boy,” hinges on a few remarkable performances, and though it fails to deliver on the promise of its premise, it is a credible depiction of a couple’s search for a way forward through extraordinary grief.

Bill (Michael Sheen) and wife Kate (Maria Bello) are suburban parents going through a rough patch in their marriage and contemplating separation. He’s some sort of businessman, although what he does is left vague. She’s a proofreader - a detail that pointedly establishes her relentless pursuit of error and inconsistency. As a last-ditch effort to keep their family together, Kate proposes a vacation with their college-age son Sammy (Kyle Gallner). Before this can happen, Sammy, in what appears to be a deliberate echo of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, goes on a murderous rampage at his college, killing 20 students before taking his own life. The carnage takes place offscreen; the substance of “Beautiful Boy” is Bill and Kate’s attempt to cope in the immediate aftermath.

The question of how Sammy could have come to commit this evil act without showing any premonitory signs hangs over the movie - even during the scenes when Bill and Kate are doing their best to hide from the idea that they bear some responsibility. As reporters converge on their house, Bill and Kate seek refuge first with Kate’s brother’s family and then in a roadside motel. The public aspects of the tragedy play out like a mechanical humming throughout the film - always present but never intruding on the journey that Bill and Kate undertake to try to get to the heart of their experience as a couple and as parents.

The portrait that emerges is not one of neglect, but a more troubling tableau of ordinary narcissism. Sammy appears to have had some behavior problems, lacked close friends and performed poorly in social situations, but his parents acknowledge that they avoided these issues because they reflected badly on themselves. Deft, seemingly spontaneous handheld camera shots catch Bill revealing a slow-burning rage and hypersensitivity. In telling moments, Kate buzzes with a sense of superiority. Their contempt for each other is at times palpable, and the viewer is left to guess whether their attempt to reconcile is genuine, or just a last-ditch effort to lie to themselves about the shattered horror their life has become.


Mr. Sheen is tasked with a near-impossible role, and plays it brilliantly. Bill is withdrawn, intermittently wrathful, and appears to lack any emotional core. This hollowness is Bill’s defining characteristic, and it’s what leaves him ill-prepared to do much else but gawk blankly, almost abstracted from the crushing reality that is consuming his life. That Mr. Sheen is able to convey the meaning behind this lack of affect is an achievement that I suspect may be rewarded with an Academy Award nomination from his fellow actors.

★★½

TITLE: “Beautiful Boy”

CREDITS: Directed by Shawn Ku. Written by Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku.

RATING: Rated R for violence, brief nudity and one sexual situation

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS