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Beautiful Boy: A Study in Emotional Inertia

<i>Beautiful Boy</i>: A Study in Emotional Inertia

DVD Release Date: October 11, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: June 3, 2011 (limited); June 17, 2011 (wider)
Rating: R (for some language and a scene of sexuality)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 100 min.
Director: Shawn Ku
Actors: Michael Sheen, Maria Bello, Kyle Gallner, Bruce French, Austin Nichols

With the multiplex overrun with the would-be blockbusters, sequels and big-budget summer movies, times are tough for art-movie lovers. Although the season’s tent-pole movies get the lion’s share of media attention—usually in relation to their box-office grosses—the summer is prime time for more intimate, limited-release titles.

Beautiful Boy, from co-writer and director Shawn Ku, is about the furthest thing from a summer blockbuster that could be imagined. It’s the “feel bad” movie of the summer—if not the year.

Some will see this movie as a way to register their complaints about the vapid Hollywood product that dominates screens while kids are out of school. But don’t mistake “downbeat” for “worthwhile.” Although Ku has tackled a serious subject—how two parents cope after their son commits mass murder and then suicide—the story he tells is one of suppressed feelings and emotional inertia, with a payoff that, while nice, feels like little reward for sitting through Beautiful Boy.

Bill (Michael Sheen, Midnight in Paris) and Kate (Maria Bello, Grown Ups) live in a large suburban home. The sprinklers automatically turn on at the same time each day. The newspaper is tossed onto the front yard at the same time, without fail. But these serene shots of the exterior of the family’s home don’t match what we see inside. Bill and Kate’s marriage shows signs of stress, and they have no one else in the home to distract them from their troubled relationship. A son, Sammy (Kyle Gallner, A Nightmare on Elm Street), is off at college, but he, too, is isolated. An early scene shows Sammy reading a story to a group of bored students ignoring his every word. When he calls home, his rapport with his parents is strained. Kate, eager to pin down plans with Sammy for a family vacation, doesn’t delve too deeply after picking up on Sammy’s reluctance to discuss his life away from home. Bill asks Sammy a few perfunctory questions but is more interested in getting some shut-eye.

They get a rude awakening when Sammy shoots up his classmates and takes his own life—a rampage that director Ku says was inspired by the Virginia Tech shootings several years ago. In the film’s press notes, Ku says he was interested in exploring the lives of the student’s parents, “two people we rarely empathize with in such a circumstance” and “who more often than not get the brunt of all the blame for the tragedy.”

How does he create empathy? By showing the parents’ horrified reactions, their hostility toward a prying media, and the shifting nature of the relationships with siblings and co-workers. There’s not much here we haven’t thought of before—a mother arranges the possessions in her son’s room and says, “We should have known.” A father sobs in the shower and says, “We did the best we could.”

Is this illuminating? Perhaps some people will be surprised to hear characters put into words what would seem like obvious questions. But although explorations of grief and marital struggles can be powerful cinematic experiences (such as in Revolutionary Road), they can also be inert, especially if the characters don’t seem to be moving through their grief to a destination. In Beautiful Boy, the characters do traverse their grief and, after a long stay in a motel, reconnect not only physically, but through the guilty pleasure of shared junk food—specifically Funyuns and “Chee” crackers.

Those moments are among the film’s best, but they’re followed by its worst—back-to-back clichés of a self-conscious, suspicious Bill blowing up at his co-workers, followed by Kate smashing dishes and sobbing as she crumbles to the floor of her kitchen.

Although their characters aren’t written in surprising ways, Sheen and Bello give performances that are hard to fault. We’ve seen them be even better in other films—Sheen in Frost/Nixon, Bello in A History of Violence, just to cite a strong film from each actor’s oeuvre—but if there’s one character who stands out unexpectedly in the film, it’s Harry (Bruce French), Bill’s boss. When he learns Bill and Kate have separated, he asks whether a few nights on a friend’s couch might have been preferable to an extended separation—a sensible question grounded in clear-headed thinking about how husbands and wives should face problems. Later, when Bill lashes out at his co-workers, Harry tells him to take a few days off, then underlines it a moment later by telling Bill that the recommendation is “not a suggestion.” This direct talk is refreshingly blunt amidst the suppressed feelings and simmering resentments in the minds of Bill and Kate.

Ku doesn’t leave the couple to their own worst instincts, bringing them back together to face their future. When the breakthrough comes after so much sorrow, it’s a relief. But it also has a too little, too late quality for viewers, who will, by that point, have long been wondering why they’ve taken this journey with these characters.


  • Language/Profanity: “Jesus”; “go--amn”; “oh my God”; the “f” word displayed in computer postings; “s-it”/””bulls-it”.
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Parents pull out a bottle of liquor and call it “dessert”; husband takes liquor bottle from a home cabinet.
  • Sex/Nudity: A married couple makes love in a hotel room; kissing and caressing are shown, and some motion under the covers; wife sits naked in bed, and her breasts are shown; later she’s shown in a bra.
  • Violence/Crime: Story revolves around a campus massacre that is discussed via news reports, but not shown; feet of a corpse can be seen; a videotape confession from Sammy before he acts; a grave marker is defaced.
  • Religion/Morals: A graveside funeral service is briefly shown; a sermon is preached on Luke 6:37; mother says God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, then adds, “It’s not true, is it?”

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