Filmmaker Shawn Ku achieves an impressive balance of formal control and emotional spontaneity in debut feature “Beautiful Boy,” a rigorously understated drama about parents coping with guilt, incomprehension and mutual recriminations after their teenage son goes on a shooting spree at his college campus, then kills himself. Compelling performances by lead players Maria Bello and Michael Sheen should generate admiring reviews. But it likely will take more than critical hosannas to overcome the public’s aversion to a work on such a bleak subject.
Early scenes, at once allusive and precise, briskly illustrate strains in the marriage of Bill (Michael Sheen), a buttoned-down, workaholic businessman, and Kate, a detail-conscious proofreader. They’re already sleeping in separate bedrooms, and appear poised to discuss the possibility of divorce before they’re backhanded by the shocking news that their moody son Sam (Kyle Gallner) has just killed several people, and himself, during a massacre much like the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy.
Ku and co-scripter Michael Armbruster deal with the actual killings only obliquely, parceling out details (the precise number of victims, the contents of Sam’s final-statement video) in quickly glimpsed TV news bulletins. Even as a media circus erupts — mostly off-camera, or outside shaded widows — “Beautiful Boy” remains tightly focused on Bill and Kate, who seek refuge at the home of her brother Eric (Alan Tudyk) and sister-in-law Trish (Moon Bloodgood).
At first, their time together in close quarters does little to dispel the couple’s estrangement. Temporarily unable to return to his job, Bill works out his frustrations while swatting tennis balls at a public playground, while Kate divides her time between proofing the book of a first-time author (Austin Nichols) and fixating on the needs, real or assumed, of her young nephew (Cody Wai-Ho Lee).
Only when they move on to a cramped room in a second-rate motel do they begin to open up to each other. Unfortunately, a rekindling of passion is followed by an unleashing of furies.
Although it’s very much a contemporary yarn, there’s a distinctly ’70s feel to much of “Beautiful Boy,” suggesting Ku was an attentive student while viewing similarly low-key, character-driven dramas (especially ones by Bob Rafelson) from that period.
The sense of claustrophobic intimacy is greatly enhanced by Michael Fimognari’s hand-held cinematography, which, appropriately enough, often has the skittish quality of lensing in a verite documentary.
Sheen expertly underplays Bill’s inner rage and resentment, making his ultimate outburst all the more harrowing, and Bello is deeply affecting as a woman desperately trying to peer through the fog of her anguished confusion. Supporting players — including Meat Loaf Aday as an unexpectedly sympathetic motel clerk — are well cast.
Sound mixer David Waelder’s subtle contributions are invaluable in a pic where a raised voice has the impact of a gunshot, and a furious quarrel can be as terrifying as a late-night bombardment.
To his great credit, Ku, for the most part, avoids the predictable. And while the film’s ending is neither tidy nor contrived, it is relatively hopeful. That may help inspire the buzz “Beautiful Boy” most certainly will need to attract ticket-buyers otherwise turned off by a plot synopsis.