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Beautiful Boy | Review

A melodramatic take on two parents’ grief in the wake of a school shooting

Allegedly based on the Virginia Tech Shooting, Shawn Ku’s FIPRESCI-winning (TIFF 2010) directing debut Beautiful Boy ignores the larger cultural aftermath of a shooting and instead depicts the bereavement of the shooter’s parents Bill and Kate (Michael Sheen and Maria Bello), and the confusion they face while trying to battle their loss and their sense of guilt. Unfortunately for acting pair, some of the dramatic sequences are spot on, while others buckle on the weight of its own rhetoric.

A school shooting is an atrocity that affects not only the members of that school, but the members of all schools. The proliferation of this sad and monstrous act over the past decade has changed our perception of these communal spaces; though it is still met with dismay and disgust, it is no longer a shock. The film begins with a failing marriage. There is no affection between Sheen and Bello; she yells from the study to ask about his dinner while he sits alone in a pristine, barren dining room. When later that evening their son Sammy (Kyle Gallner) calls from college, Sheen is quick to cover the essentials (money, the car) but is otherwise at a loss in how to communicate with his son. Bello is nearly as clueless as she asks him to approve their upcoming vacation to Miami, a vacation Sheen objects to due to their looming separation. We see what Bill and Kate do not, a shaken Sammy, one who looks well beyond desperate, passed hope.

A non-descript suburban morning is shattered by the news of the shooting. Sheen and Bello take the news of their son’s killing spree in typical fashion, she in overly emotive shrieks, he in a stunned stoicism. To avoid the press, they hide out at the house of her brother Eric (Alan Tudyk). In the throws of this tragedy, the couple reunites; they see in each other the only other person who can understand their grief. As they walk down the street, in a rare moment of reprieve, Kate remarks on the intoxicating smell of the flowers that surround them. At first confused, Bill confesses that he thought that smell was her shampoo. So much of the film is captured in tight, constantly moving close-ups, an effect that keeps the audience disoriented. This scene keeps us at a distance; Bill and Kate stroll down the serene street and, in this private moment between them, all we are offered are their backs.

However, few other scenes attain this levity. Too often, the film slumps into melodrama counting on the loudness of voices and wildness of gesticulations to carry the weight. Watching Sheen and Bello spar verbally scene after scene continually begs the question, what about Sammy? What about the person who caused this suffering? Ku deliberately obscures Sammy; this regrettably leaves a gaping hole in the narrative.

When Bill and Kate are at Eric’s, a video Sammy made appears on the morning news. Much like the real ones on which it’s based, Sammy stands in front of his webcam in dark clothes, wielding a weapon, explaining the motives behind his mania. Horrified, they turn the television off, thus further abstracting their son’s image. They suppress his actions but in so doing alienate the audience from knowing anything other then their anguish, which is of course a given. What is even more dangerous, what is shown of him is the hackneyed portrayal of the ‘shy, artistic, misunderstood boy’. Sammy is, however sick and misguided, an adult who knowingly murdered twenty people. Not only is that fact glossed over, it’s barely addressed. The aftermath is never shown; friends, classmates, teachers are never shown as people who have suffered, only as those who want to further exploit Sammy. Morally, and this film cannot shirk its responsibility in that realm, that is questionable at best.

The film opens with what looks like home video footage of Bill and Kate playing on the beach. Things seem simple, even pleasant. A narrator describes a scene different from what we see. The beach knows the sadness of the moment, knows that snow is coming. Sammy, the narrator, looks up from his paper at apathetic students sitting across from him in class, none of whom are paying attention to him. Later that night, Sammy asks his mother if she knew that all snowflakes have six sides. Confused, Kate responds that she did not. These are the only moments shown of Sam before the shooting. The omission of any attempt to understand Sam better than a stereotype, and the romanticizing of his nature mistreat and oversimplify a tragedy that is becoming an epidemic. Including a few pseudo artistic moments does not grant the right to call a murderer a Beautiful Boy.

Rating 2.5 stars

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Jesse Klein (MFA in Film and Video Production from The University of Texas at Austin) is a Montreal-born filmmaker and writer. His first feature film, Shadowboxing, (RVCQ '10, Lone Star Film Festival '10) . As well as contributing to IONCINEMA, he is the senior contributor to This Recording and writes for ION Magazine and Hammer to Nail. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (All About My Mother), Coen Bros. (Fargo), Dardenne Bros. (Rosetta), Haneke (The White Ribbon), Hsiao-Hsien (Flowers of Shanghai), Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love), Kiarostami (Close-Up), Lynch (Blue Velvet), Tarantino (Jackie Brown), Van Sant (To Die For), von Trier (Breaking The Waves)

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