The struggling married couple at the heart of "Beautiful Boy" have their lives altered by the most horrific nightmare imaginable involving their son. It is timely and excruciatingly unpleasant, the central tragedy should resonate with anyone concerned about alienation and random violence in the world today. To the movie's advantage, the DVD cover and promotional material has the common sense to NOT reveal the specifics of this incident. For the movie to achieve its maximum power, it is best to allow the content to be unveiled to the viewer as it unfolds to the parents. However, this subtle tactic is undermined by almost every review available on Amazon (including Amazon's own editorial DVD description). It's an unfortunate miscalculation, in my estimation, as it eliminates much tension from the film's earlier scenes and detracts from one of the year's most harrowing moments. Writer/director Shawn Ku takes universal tragedy and shifts the focus in an unexpected and very personal way. By doing so, he has given Michael Sheen and Maria Bello two of the most underrated roles (and performances) of the year.
Sheen and Bello play an affluent, yet struggling, couple on the brink of divorce. As they are making important decisions about their lives together, some crushing news about their college-age son smashes their existence. Suddenly, they are at the center of a public maelstrom. Everything they thought they knew has been stripped away and they are left with nothing but each other. Trying to make sense of what happened and simultaneously trying to move past it, the couple attempt to navigate a powder keg of emotions. And the story is very much about Bello and Sheen and how they cope. Will this incident pull them back together or destroy them forever. Part of the nuance of Ku's screenplay is that it allows that they are each their own person, and their reaction to the event and its aftermath is very separate (even as they are forever intertwined). Filled with regret, recriminations, and humiliation--is it possible to move on? And where does ultimate responsibility lay when unimaginable things occur?
"Beautiful Boy" is a smart and sophisticated piece of work. Despite the opportunity for emotional grandstanding, Bello and Sheen remain remarkably grounded and utterly real. At times, you might wish the movie offered more insight into just who their son is. He is never developed (as a conscious decision), but the enigma of his character lingers all over the movie. I mean if his parents, who by all accounts had a close enough relationship with the boy, are clueless--it's hard for the viewer to contextualize what happens. Still, the movie is sensitively wrought and offers two compelling performances. Sheen, as always, executes in one of his most emotional roles. But it is Bello that has the chance to surprise. I've always liked Bello, but her resume veers all over the place from top tier work to grade-B schlock. This time, she's chosen right and her brittleness has rarely been used to such affect. This is definitely a movie for adults who appreciate serious minded filmmaking. An easy recommendation--its power comes from its understatement. About 4 1/2 stars. KGHarris, 11/11.