Pain and questions for parents of a teen gone wrong
In “Beautiful Boy,’’ Maria Bello and Michael Sheen strain for maximal glumness. She stares off into nothing and balls herself up on a bed. He weeps in the shower. They’re playing married parents whose teenage son just shot several people then killed himself. And as much as you don’t want to notice how much acting they’re doing, there they are acting all over you. Bring a tissue? Bring a towel.
This small, independently made movie traps us with Kate and Bill (Bello and Sheen) as they flee the camera crews on their suburban lawn. First they stay with her brother and his wife, then, after she horns in on her nephew, to a motel, where they get down to what really matters to this movie: Whose fault is this? He’s a man, so it’s his: “If you weren’t such an emotionally absent cliche of a father!’’ She’s some kind of heartless copy editor, so the fault is hers: “You and your red pen!’’ And if we’ve decided to sit in the dark and watch these two, it’s ours.
Shawn Ku directed this movie and wrote it with Michael Armbruster, and it’s obvious what happened. They saw enough of these massacres and had a thought: “It must have been hell on the parents. Of the shooter.’’ The filmmakers don’t have many insights into how or whether Kate and Bill’s grief differs from that of the friends and families of the victims. This feels like a movie that won a high school current-events contest: Take a tragedy, make a movie.
What must have been a leap of wonder or empathy for Ku and Armbruster plays like opportunism. This really is a perversion of the dead-child stories that movies seem to like. The parents don’t take revenge here. There’s none for them to take. They just wilt and rage. Which to some extent is to be expected, but we’re never less than fully aware that Bello and Sheen are enraged and wilting. They can’t escape images of their son on TV. They find his DVD goodbye. They’ve come to resent each other. They have no idea why their son did what he did, but the movie’s not sophisticated enough to complicate their sense of the unknown. And Bello and Sheen are more sophisticated than anything the movie has them do.
For Kate and Bill, life is terrible, and the movie’s twinkling piano must be meant to extend a sense of their torment to us. There’s sympathy to be shared with a couple like this. There’s just very little in “Beautiful Boy’’ that feels fresh or new or truly raw. The houses, that title, every emotion, even the false moves: They’re all generic.