Beautiful Boy The Taint Of Separation; The Mark Of Parenthood
Michael Sheen as Bill and Maria Bello as Kate in Shawn Ku's drama "Beautiful
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
June 17, 2011
"Beautiful Boy" opens with a
jagged home video scene on a beach and narration by a male voice. We see a
family, cheerful and vibrant. The son seems happy but the narration
portends something more grim, and we realize that Shawn Ku's drama will become a
tense, grim exercise.
Written by Mr. Ku and Michael Armbruster, "Beautiful Boy" is more about the
disintegration of a relationship and family prior to a horrific event that
borrows much from the 2007 shooting massacre at Virginia Tech, than it is about
that event itself.
Kate (Maria Bello) and Bill (Michael Sheen) are a married couple in Los Angeles
whose separation is impending. They are already living separate lives in a
large vacant house, auditioning for the inevitable. They barely look each
other in the eye. The issues in their now-fractured relationship arose
long before their now-painfully unhappy son Sammy (Kyle Gallner) angrily
shattered their world and his own.
Cinematographer Michael Fimognari's camera floats, sometimes annoyingly but
mostly to effectively build tension in close-ups of Kate and Bill and everyone
else who gets soaked into their double-whammy situation. Mr. Ku
deliberately doesn't tie Sammy to Kate and Bill so there's an eerie,
discomfiting feeling, a disconnect and alienation, which works well for only so
long, even as much of the story remains empty and vacant.
The vacancy in the film's narrative threads is left for the actors to fill with
their work, and Mr. Sheen in particular excels with a performance of range.
He methodically gnaws away like a dog on an oversized bone whose marrow has
already been sucked dry, until he gets to the hows and whys of his son's violent
disposition. It's a performance that is striking. Because Mr.
Sheen's turn is a disciplined bit of slow-burn acting one can forgive the
histrionics that rough domestic dramas like this and others ("Rabbit
A Better World", "In The Bedroom") will undoubtedly showcase.
I don't know that "Beautiful Boy" is depressing as much as it is a psychological
analysis of despair and helplessness. Everyone is helpless. One
character advises Bill in the most honest and heartfelt way: "You wouldn't have
known what to say anyway."
Mr. Ku tries and succeeds with the film's atmosphere and dread but his and Mr. Armbruster's story doesn't have the bite or weight that it should. Is
"Beautiful Boy" about Kate and Bill's son, or is it about the parents' struggle
to understand him? The film is somewhat indecisive on this question,
spending time in both arenas, sometimes with additional characters who have
their own agendas. Some of those characters work against "Beautiful Boy",
pulling it out of its intense and intimate environment, as do the film's
narration and bookends, all of which do not belong or fit here.
For reasons that become clear, the local media chase Kate and Bill, who try to
get a moment's peace. They seek refuge elsewhere. They can't escape
reality. There's a scene in particular that wisely depicts the
complexities shared by the two characters. It's a lengthy scene, and the
film's best. By this time you may have, as I was, been inured to laughing
but watch the interplay between Ms. Bello and Mr. Sheen ("Midnight
In Paris"). The moment is pure, and real.
Maria Bello combines a halting awareness and realism to project Kate so very
well. Carefully calibrated work, Ms. Bello seems to intentionally leave
pieces of Kate to be filled and completed. Holding back Kate and layering
her evolution in a disciplined way works while aspects of the film do not
Sometimes "Beautiful Boy" goes places it isn't expected to and remains discreet
in its showing of violence, as if to signal that it has good, non-exploitive
intentions. Still, I ended up leaving what was at best an adequate film
remembering the fine lead performances, wondering whether Mr. Ku's film was
entirely worthy of them.
With: Alan Tudyk, Deidrie Henry, Bruce French, Moon Bloodgood, Austin Nichols,
Cody Wai-Ho Lee, Meat Loaf Aday, Logan South.