There are enough school shooting films out there at the moment that they are threatening to become a sub-genre unto themselves. Elephant, Bowling For Columbine, Polytechnique have all won major awards and Uwe Boll has made one as well. So enter freshman filmmaker Shawn Ku who gives us a film, Beautiful Boy, which is torn on two fronts. On one hand it struggles to transcend clichés as a hand-held realistic and grounded drama, and on the other it wants to throw plates, obsessively scrub gravestones and have its principle characters do enough body-shaking crying so as to rival a belly-dancers funeral. There is a good film struggling to get out past a few bad writing choices, screenplay feels just a tad overwritten. Bolstered significantly by top shelf performances from its leads, Maria Bello and Michael Sheen (doing an American accent quite well), the two play the grieving parents, Bill and Kate, of freshmen college student Sam. Sam is killed in a columbine style school shooting and Kate immediately knows her son is the victim when the cops come knocking at the door. But both parents are flabbergasted when they discover that it was their son who shot all of his classmates before turning the gun on himself.
Bill and Kate are middle-aged, middle class parents, and they have their problems. Bill is considering moving out of the household on a trial separation due to a lack of communication or passion in the household, but their issues are not outside of the bounds of any family at the hump of the middle class distribution curve. They may not have been the best parents in the world, but they are hardy the worst. Thus the shock of sort out why their son did this violent crime and even left an angry manifesto-styled video for the news media. There is little time to consider this in the quiet of their own home which soon becomes the campsite for hundreds of media vans desperate for grist for the mill of the 24/7 news cycle. Taking refuge at the home of Kate’s brother (Alan Tudyk) for a time until the dust settles. Kate’s Brother’s wife Trish and her 8 year old son immediately complicate things however. The young boy sees things on the news and at school and starts asking question nobody is prepared to answer. Every gesture and action of Kate towards the child or even sharing of the household chores becomes a moment loaded with unconscious judgment and guilt on both sides. The awkwardness of this new relationship, on top of everything else is palpable for all parties, despite the desire to ‘be helpful.’ Kate’s brother actually keeps a quite level head about things, he can almost make an inappropriate-but-not-malicious joke to himself as if to acknowledge that the situation “just is” and that we all deal with as best we can. Kate and Bill eventually move into a hotel room to pick up the pieces of their present situation and difficult future ahead.
Having two children myself, I have rapidly come to realize that religion or politics amongst parents are not nearly a walking-on-eggshell subject as ‘parenting philosophy.’ Friendships can get strained and even end because how you feel children should be raised; the choices you make are a reflection of your own judgment and values which I suppose often gets back to religion and politics but not quite. Beautiful Boy is best when it considers these things dramatically. How the details matter. But there is a point where the film could benefit from the more ‘detached’ Gus Van Sant approach instead of starting to slowly ‘reveal’ reasons for Sams action. At first it teases with Kate’s profession as a proofreader for a publishing company. With her ‘little red pen’ she corrects the spelling and grammar of a book and this becomes a too-cute symbol for how she, perhaps, over-criticized her Sam to the point where he became disengaged. An anecdote to the author of the book she is currently working on reveals that the family has not had a sit-down meal together in about a decade. Oh my! On the other side of the marriage, Sheen’s aloofness is also blamed at one point. Was it Sam’s difficult first year of college with his parents caught up in the busy day-to-day of modern western life? Not enough time spent with Sam as a child? Because they drive a Prius? We all want are children to be better than us, more pure, more successful, less damaged, but finding the line of where to coddle and where to push is something that you sort of muddle through. The film for a time is quite good at walking the line between ‘it is what is is’ acceptance, and the desire to lump blame on external (or internal) factors. The big question the two parents grapple with is “How Did We Fail?” Right up to the night before the shooting where Sam placed an innocent and rather typical phone call to his parents.
There are some truly excellent scenes for the actors in the film. The couple rages at each other at one point, letting everything out in the type of shouting match that wins little golden men, but Ku captures it with a hand-held camera in one unbroken take with the camera swishing back and forth. The scene resonates because they say awful things to one another that they mean in part, but also do not fully mean. Whether these things said in a rage can be compartmentalized as ‘in the moment’ and not ‘hurtful relationship killing observations’ is a challenge the couple has to deal with as best they can. Just prior, to that scene, the calm before the storm, is an evening of casual drinking and junk-food which culminates in a card-game of strip poker and casual banter of a comfortable and confident couple. It is a moment reminiscent of Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen in Mike Leigh’s Another Year. Beautiful Boy often plunges into cliché in a challenging attempt to transcend cliché. But an over-written screenplay, not quite going into Paul Haggis territory, but often too close for comfort, as in Sheen’s attempt to continue his office job, or a phone call placed to Sam’s not-quite gone voice-mail more for the benefit of pulling audience heart-strings rather than the character. This ultimately sink the film. The final shot has the unpalatable and even offensive suggestion that Sam killed dozens of college kids to ‘break the family out of the rut,’ and even uglier, the film posits that he was quite successful. Now that I think about it, I’d like to see Mike Leigh have a crack at a school shooting aftermath drama, starring Alan Tudyk, because god knows Beautiful Boy could have benefited from less melodrama and more Alan Tudyk. In times of crisis, a voice of reason is as necessary (or at least yearned for) as high emotion. Beautiful often feels as exploitive as it does considered.