Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy
Director: Shawn Ku
Screenplay: Michael Armbruster & Shawn Ku
Stars: Maria Bello (Kate), Michael Sheen (Bill), Kyle Gallner (Sammy), Alan Tudyk (Eric), Moon Bloodgood (Trish), Cody Wai-Ho Lee (Dylan), Austin Nichols (Cooper), Deidrie Henry (Bonnie), Bruce French (Harry), Nigel Gibbs (Police Detective)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2011
Country: U.S.
Beautiful Boy
Beautiful BoyThere is a scene, repeated several times throughout Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoid thriller The Conversation (1974), in which a man and a woman walk past an old homeless man sleeping on a park bench and the woman murmurs, “Every time I see one of those old guys, I always think the same thing. I always think that he was once somebody’s baby boy. Really, I do. I think he was once somebody’s baby boy, and he had a mother and a father who loved him, and now there he is, half dead on a park bench, and where are his mother or his father, all his uncles now?”

That essentially sums up the essence of Shawn Ku’s Beautiful Boy, even though the film has nothing to do with homelessness. Rather, it is about the traumatic aftermath of a school shooting, an event that Americans have become all too familiar with over the past dozen years. Yet, our familiarity as news viewers and outsiders is always with the killer, whose face is inevitably plastered on TV and computer screens and whose self-shot video footage unspools over and over again as analysts and experts and other talking heads try to deconstruct his motives and figure out “what went wrong.” We have become so familiar with this particular genre of national tragedy that we all too often forget that the killer did not spontaneously come into existence. Like the old homeless man on the park bench, school shooters had mothers and fathers, and the fact that this often escapes us--consciously or otherwise--suggests an unwillingness to understand the terrible truth that the perpetrators of the most horrible atrocities “were once somebody’s baby boy.”

The baby boy here is a troubled college freshman named Sam (Kyle Gallner), who we first see in old home video footage as a child on the beach with his parents, Kate (Maria Bello) and Bill (Michael Sheen). On the soundtrack we hear his voice reading a poignant story he has written about that moment in time (which evokes Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree), and when we cut to his creative writing class and see the bored, apathetic response from the students around him, we are thrust into his isolation. Isolation, as it turns out, is a key theme in Beautiful Boy; not only is Sam completely isolated from everyone around him, his childhood shyness and insecurity now warped into an angry sense of despondency whose outlet is ultimately violence on a massive scale, but so are his parents. Having drifted apart for years, Kate and Bill share the same house, but not the same life. They eat separately, sleep in different rooms, and Bill spends much of his time at work pondering whether he should move into his own apartment. Kate is sure that a family vacation to Miami (where the footage we saw at the beginning of the film was probably shot) will bring them all back together, but it is not to be.

They speak to Sam on the phone one night, and the next morning he walks into his university classroom and guns down 19 students and faculty members and then himself. We never see the violence firsthand, but rather hear about it via the myriad news channels, both local and national. When they first hear of the shooting, Kate and Bill are naturally scared that Sam is one of the victims. They, of course, never imagined that he was the killer and that he would soon to be vilified across the media, from 24-hour news channels to Facebook pages. They soon find themselves at the center of a media maelstrom, with reporters camped out on their front lawn all day. They hide for a while at the house of Kate’s understanding brother Eric (Alan Tudyk) and his wife Trish (Moon Bloodgood), but they soon begin to wear out their welcome as their obvious marital problems bring discomfort to the house and Kate begins channeling her need to mother onto Eric and Trish’s young son Dylan (Cody Wai-Ho). All the while Kate and Bill are struggling with their own identities, questioning themselves and their parenting, wondering what they did that was so wrong that their only son became a spree killer. The film’s most affecting moments are when they see Sam on television, particularly the angry, hateful self-made videos they never knew existed, because it puts into such stark relief the distance between the reality of Sam’s life and what they thought they knew about it. On-screen he is immediately defamiliarized: Still their son, but now an object of universal scorn about whom they apparently knew little, possibly nothing.

Written by first-time screenwriter Michael Armbuster and director Shawn Kru, whose only previous credit is the made-for-MTV romantic comedy The American Mall (2008), Beautiful Boy is a tough movie to watch, as it draws us deep inside Bill and Kate’s emotional trauma and their increasing isolation from everyone around them. It is a painful place to be, especially for an entire film that offers little in the way of respite from their despair; we may wish for catharsis, but it never comes. Even when Bill and Kate seem to be finding each other again, we sense that it is only because there is no one else for them to turn to; all of their friends and co-workers and family members have been immediately turned into strangers by the enormity of their son’s actions. This isolation is reflected in the film’s cinematography, which tends to view them from behind objects and around corners, as if the camera is peaking at them, curious and yet afraid.

Beautiful Boy is, in this sense, fully tragic, as it avoids easy answers that might trivialize the extent of the fall-out. This requires quite a bit from Mario Bello and Michael Sheen, both of whom emote powerfully, whether they are sitting in abject silence or ripping into each other with years of pent-up hostilities and regret. The film is certainly powerful enough, but like last year’s Rabbit Hole, which dealt with similar emotional trauma in an unstable marriage, it never quite transcends the fury of the moment in order to drive home a message beyond the surface devastation. There are no answers, only more questions, and the film beats you down, which is probably the point and the closest we can ever get to truly empathizing with parents whose children go mad.

Beautiful Boy Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • English Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Shawn Ku, editor Chad Galster, and cinematographer Michael Fimognari
  • Deleted scenes
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorAnchor Bay Entertainment
    Release DateOctober 11, 2011

    Beautiful Boy was shot in a slightly rough, semi-documentary style that involves a lot of handheld camerawork, close-ups, and shallow focus, all of which the 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer on this Blu-Ray handles very nicely. The image is just a tad soft and there is the clear presence of grain, which adds to the transfer’s filmlike appearance. Colors are slightly muted, but look natural and well presented. The DTS-HD 5.1-channel surround soundtrack does its job well, keeping dialogue crisp and clear in the front soundstage while using the surrounds for subtle ambient effects and to open up the musical score a bit.
    The screen-specific audio commentary is an informative and thoughtful group affair that reunites writer/director Shawn Ku, editor Chad Galster, and cinematographer Michael Fimognari to talk about the various narrative and stylistic choices. Also on the disc are the original theatrical trailer and three brief deleted scenes, all of which take place during the stay at Eric and Trish’s house and were obviously cut early on because the sound is still rough.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Anchor Bay Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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