In high school I worked at a gas station, where I served as full-time clerk and part-time shrink to some of the friendless and overly talkative customers. One sticks with me. A father from a neighboring town came into the store on the anniversary of his daughter’s death. She was killed when a classmate hit her while speeding home from school one evening. I must have been the first person to ask him about his day, so he told me about it. I remember listening awkwardly, trying to empathize with a man whose loss was more terrible than anything I could really comprehend.
Shawn Ku, the up-and-coming writer/director of “Beautiful Boy,” deliberately thrusts that feeling on viewers. In “Beautiful Boy,” Bill (Michael Sheen with an American accent) and Kate (Maria Bello) struggle to cope with the loss of their son Sam, who went on a horrific shooting rampage on his college campus before turning the gun on himself. The tragedy amplifies the problems in their already strained relationship and forces them to address who they are as individuals and as a couple bound together by their son’s horrific actions. It’s Columbine, Virginia Tech, Columbine, from a side you never hear – a side so horrific and painful it’s almost impossible to imagine.
The film is Ku’s reflection on what it’s like to be an awkward part of a family’s sorrow. Ku was the last person to see a friend of his before he died (of natural causes), and Ku thus assumed a strange role in the mourning cycle of his friend’s family. “I was the one his parents clung to for any sign that his troubles and disappointments were released before the end,” Ku said of the experience.
In that vein, Ku and Director of Photography Michael Fimognari shot “Beautiful Boy” as if the camera were an awkward guest. Rarely does the camera capture everything that’s happening. A door frame or someone’s head always partially blocks the action, giving the impression that the viewer is peering around a corner, hidden behind a couch, looking over someone’s shoulder, an out-of-place, illegitimate observer of the intimate and emotional moments that unfold. It also adds a clinical element, one of detached analysis, which keeps the viewer from really experiencing the emotions of the characters.
That’s not to say the emotions of the characters aren’t real, and powerful. Michael Sheen and Maria Bello deliver solid performances. It’s easy to see that these two perfectly complete each other, but the years of parenting, working, going through the motions of chores and errands sucked the life from their relationship and drove them apart, with the rift between them emphasized by contrasting lighting and separate bedrooms. On a three-way call with Sam (played in the painful final hours of his life by Kyle Gallner), Sheen sounds tired and quickly hangs up when he finds he has nothing to say – not knowing it’s his last conversation with his son. Bello’s Kate, in turn, while saddened by the tough time Sam is having at school, shrugs it off as a freshman phase.
After the shooting, their emotions roil tumultuously from weeping to babbling to flairs of anger and exhausting busy work. These responses are at once cliché and perfectly realistic, but they occur quickly, with little break between conflicting feelings, adding to the viewer’s detachment. The levy of civility eventually breaks under the strain as husband and wife blame each other for their son’s actions.
But the tragedy, ultimately, is that sometimes it’s nobody’s fault. No one is perfect, and certainly things – the world, parenting choices – could have been changed for the better. Or sometimes it’s just a tragedy.
Ku co-wrote the film with Michael Armbruster. It’s a generally solid script, with some great imagery. At one point, Sheen flips out on a group of kids when they try to crowd him out of a basketball court he’s using, only to realize that this rage could have been the root of his son’s. Ku and Armbruster’s supporting characters are strong and varied – a co-worker, a brother and sister-in-law, a friend – fleshing out the film and the lives of Bill and Kate.
Tragedy, we all know, ultimately brings people together or tears them apart. But what I learned as a clerk, and what Bill and Kate learn, is that it takes time – sometimes a lot more than you’d like – to know which effect it will have on you. But most of us don’t have a tragedy this big directly affecting our lives. Most of us are the outsiders eating up media coverage. For us, Ku has another message. While “Beautiful Boy” doesn’t address the reality of a fallen world and sin’s place in terrible tragedies, it does address the appropriate response to it. Ku places it in the film during a church service following the shooting. The church’s pastor preaches from Luke 6, an appropriate response for the average person to people in the situation of Bill and Kate: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”