Beautiful Boy has an undeniably appealing premise—what do the parents of school shooter go through? And it has two very good actors—Michael Sheen and Maria Bello—who fully commit to their roles. Sheen and Bello play Bill and Kate Carroll, the parents of Sam (Kyle Gallner), the freshman who goes on a shooting spree at his college before killing himself.
Director Shawn Ku begins almost in medias res, as it’s only a matter of minutes for the premise to be established before Bill and Kate, and by extension the audience, are confronted with a flurry of television cameras, media pundits, and frustrated parents looking for someone to blame. The couple’s first instinct is to shut themselves up in their house and ignore the rest of the world, but the media hounds are relentless, and the two retreat to the home of Kate’s brother Erik (Alan Tudyk), his wife (Moon Bloodgood), and their small child.
Bill and Kate try desperately to return to their previous lives through any means—work, family, and fostering a relationship with Erik’s child, but the grim reality is that no matter how hard they try, the past cannot be recaptured. They finally end up in a hotel, eking out an existence cut off from the world and fueled by vending-machine snacks, sex, and booze. But while they run and run and run, they cannot hide; Sam’s specter continues to haunt them and the realization that they’ve been running from their problems for the extent of their relationship closes in.
This description perhaps does the movie too much justice, because, despite its relatively short running time and the host of issues it brings up, Beautiful Boy is, above all, relentlessly dull.
The word “deception” is not quite appropriate to describe the film, but I left it feeling cheated. It’s not that I was eager to see Sam gunning down his classmates in cold blood, nor was I angry at the shift it takes from investigating the tragedy to analyzing the Carroll’s marriage. No, I felt cheated because all throughout the film Ku, who shares co-writing credit, attempts to skate by on premise alone.
Boy convincingly presents all the dilemmas I suspect the parents of such a child as Sam would face, but no sooner is an interesting development brought up than it’s cast aside for the next, like a skeet shooter firing blindly and simply dusting every target.
Similarly, Ku is more satisfied to let the audience supply the meaning behind his endless shots of Sheen and Bello crying in the shower, or countless times elsewhere—Sam’s room, his grave site, the coke machine behind the local burlesque (it might as well be), wherever—this is not an economy of dialogue because we’re never quite sure what it is the characters are crying about. The focus is kept strictly to Bill and Kate, and while we’re intended to sympathize, we get only a glimpse of the worlds both outside and in that weigh so heavily upon them. Yes, we see their reactions, but to what? One can see only so many shots of a troubled man crying his beady little eyes out before ours feel similarly worn down.
If anything, Beautiful Boy proves that premise alone does not make a good movie. It wastes two performances that could have been great, attempts to get by by resting on only a framework, and leaves the viewer exhausted for all the wrong reasons.