Bello and Sheen Strengthen 'Beautiful Boy'
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Kate (Maria Bello) and Bill (Michael Sheen) sleep in separate rooms in a lovely home. There must have been heated arguments at some point as their marriage fell apart, but what we see now is the ice-cold detente as they move inexorably toward the inevitable. Their only son, Sam (Kyle Gallner), is off at college, but when he calls home, it sounds like he's known for a while that there's not much of a home there. One morning Bill and Kate are shocked and terrified to hear that there's been a shooting rampage at Sammy's school. They're even more shocked and terrified to learn that Sammy is dead. At his own hand. Because he was the shooter.
Directed and co-written by Shawn Ku, "Beautiful Boy" isn't intended as a crime tale or a story of suspense -- unlike Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" or Denis Villeneuve's "Polytechnique," we never see the actual rampage. Like the upcoming "We Need to Talk About Kevin," which premiered weeks ago at Cannes and will be released in America in the future, is instead a chronicle of aftermath. In Lynne Ramsay's "Kevin," we watch Tilda Swinton's scarred and shattered mother deal with the consequences of a son's actions; here, we get more of a two-handed acting exercise (and, frankly, a less visually exciting film) as Sheen and Bello comfort and confront each other.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that all Ku and co-screenwriter Michael Armbruster give us is shouting or soothing between Bello and Sheen. For a while, Bill and Kate take refuge with her brother Eric (the always-excellent Alan Tudyk), his wife Trish (Moon Bloodgood) and their son Dylan (Cody Wai-Ho-Lee), and the permutations and combinations they go through are more sharply drawn than not. (At one point, Kate vocally disapproves of Trish's choice in sugary breakfast cereal for Dylan, and the brief you-have-to-be-kidding-me look Bloodgood shoots her is worth a thousand words.)
There are scenes where Sheen and Bello's work -- most notably one shot in what's clearly a real hotel room under cramped circumstances, with no small amount of carefully choreographed movement by the camera crew and the actors -- is something worthy of note, as Bill and Kate cycle through stages of things getting better and things getting worse. Gallner's Sam doesn't have many scenes, which is a necessary directorial cheat, if only to keep Bill and Kate reasonably blameless and shocked when he does what he does. (And too much reasoning and backstory would also make Sam's murders more explainable and less existential. As it is, the script leaves things so that, to paraphrase the Boomtown Rats' 1979 school-shooting pop masterpiece "I Don't Like Mondays," you can see no reasons 'cause there are no reasons.)
"Beautiful Boy" is clearly a passion project for all involved, but it isn't simply a vanity project. Bello gives her best performance since "A History of Violence," and while you could joke that at this point it's just nice to see Sheen not playing Tony Blair -- or slumming it gloriously in "Tron: Legacy" -- he also delivers an excellent performance (and, not to mention the trivial, but it matters, a pretty good American accent as well). Both Sheen and Bello are raw and messy here, and while you could sneer and suggest that opportunity is exactly why they signed up for the film, it's also a rare chance to see real actors doing real work. (It's all the more surprising when you realize that Ku's previous directorial credit was the MTV TV movie "The American Mall.") "Beautiful Boy" could be about any tragedy -- what did we do before to make this happen, what did we not do to let this happen, what do we do now that it's happened? -- and it is at its best when it is at its toughest.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.