Understated yet deadly potent, the opening sequences suck the air right out of the theatre. The scenario is sketched in a few deft strokes: A suburban couple, Kate and Bill, share a passionless marriage with nothing left in common save their love for Sam, a teenaged son off at college.
He calls late one night - just the usual exchange of platitudes. The next morning brings a news report of a massacre at his campus. The mother is understandably anxious. Hours later, the knock comes at the front door and her worst fears are confirmed. No. Turns out her worst fears were unimaginable. Sam died, but not as one of the victims: He was the shooter.
So begins Beautiful Boy, and the rest takes the parents through the hellish aftermath. Grief of this approximate type, the death of a child, occasionally comes to the movies - in Rabbit Hole and In the Bedroom - and it's always a tough sell to audiences with a more escapist definition of entertainment. Perhaps for that reason, director/co-writer Shawn Ku tries to up the social relevance along with the dramatic ante - combining the ennui of Rabbit Hole with the horror of Lionel Shriver's disturbing novel We Need To Talk About Kevin.
But that's an awfully big canvas and Ku, so adept in that opening sketch, proves clumsy with the larger picture. For instance, Shriver devoted a whole book to exploring Kevin's sociopathic nature. But Sam remains a complete cipher here. We're expected to believe his parents' claim that, beyond an innate shyness, he displayed no worrisome signs at any stage. Initially they blame themselves, yet only vaguely: "Did we do something? Did we not do something?" Later they blame each other - "You picked at every flaw in him;" "You were an emotionally absent father" - but this too does nothing to fill the explanatory vacuum.
Instead the tragedy is described, if not dismissed, as "inexplicable," and the film confines its focus to Kate and Bill (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen). To escape the media circus, they retreat to her brother's house, where a brittle politeness reigns ("How did you sleep?") and where the two seek relief from the pain in typically separate ways - he through the sweat of hard exercise, she through playing mom to her young nephew.
The TV screen flashes a glimpse of a video posted by Sam, yet the parents don't want to see it and, astonishingly, Ku doesn't want to show it to us. The cipher stays intact.
Of course, the polite veneer cracks, tensions erupt and the couple leave one sanctuary for another - a motel room. There, for precious weeks, they settle into a perpetual present, chasing junk food with whisky and, in the film's only other potent scene, a rare bout of desperate yet tender sex.
After that, the script ventures off on several unlikely subplots and then, much like the protagonists, seems unsure of where to head next. The climax sounds a faint note of hope that will ring true only to those who believe its underlying assumption: that an ordinarily bad marriage can be strengthened by a heavy injection of extraordinarily bad circumstances.
As for the principal casting, Ku gets it half-right. Bello is superb. Even when the plot betrays her, she's convincing as the riven heart of the film - migrating from subdued grief to wild despair, and from flat denial through reactive anger to baffled confusion. But Sheen is a problem. With a few exceptions (like the motel scene), he and his quacky American accent just aren't up to the weight of this material. To date, his best screen performances all involve an element of twinkle-eyed impersonation: Tony Blair, David Frost, Brian Clough. The twinkle is gone here, but you can seem him labouring hard to erase it.
In fact, the whole project labours towards an importance it never earns. In Beautiful Boy, the themes are vast but the picture is small, and the ensuing emptiness is what the characters are meant to feel - not us.
- Directed by Shawn Ku
- Written by Shawn Ku and Michael Armbruster
- Starring Maria Bello and Michael Sheen
- Classification: 14A