I must admit that the premise of this film did not excite me terribly at first glance, since I've seen too many made-for-TV movies filled with overly sentimental music and tear-jerking dramatics. Viewing the film, however, was both refreshing and dramatically satisfying.
Bill and Kate are the middle-class parents of college junior Sammy, a young man who has always been quiet and something of a loner. There is a tension beneath their marriage which is not readily apparent to anyone, not even to them. One night their son calls and sounds unusually quiet. The viewer is easily able to spot the sadness and confusion in his face, but Bill and Kate notice nothing over the phone, chatting only about planning the family vacation.
The next morning brings the news that a student has shot dozens of fellow students at Sammy's college. There is a lockdown and no information is coming out of the school. Worried as they are, Bill and Kate convince themselves that Sammy is fine - he rarely answers his cell phone anyway, Kate muses - until the moment when two detectives appear at their door. Kate screams, "He's dead, isn't he?" and their worst fears are confirmed. But then comes the unthinkable, "There's more" says the Detective, as he informs them that Sammy is the perpetrator who shot himself in the head after murdering so many of his fellow students. "LIAR!" shrieks Kate, "LIAR!" she repeats, as she collapses in disbelief.
They both take to bed, Bill in their room and Kate sprawled across Sammy's in his attic bedroom. After a short while, the reporters appear at their door and the television is endlessly showing Sammy's photo and a seemingly psychopathic video he made shortly before his rampage. Bill and Kate flee to Kate's brother's home, while they try to come to terms with Sammy's inexplicable killing spree.
The first thing that impressed me about this film was the superb acting. Michael Sheen ("David Frost" in FROST NIXON; "Tony Blair" in THE QUEEN) is nothing short of brilliant as the confused and grieving Bill. He's a good man, a good husband and a good father, but the events that unfold make him question if the tragedy could somehow be their fault. Maria Bello (THANK YOU FOR SMOKING) is extremely effective as Kate, believably and quietly wringing all the emotion one could expect out of the situation. But even more than their amazing performances, the tight script, effectively dramatic without any pathos or phony emotion, is as believable as one could want and plunges the viewer directly into the experience of the two shocked parents, as they deal with horribly cruel and judgmental comments on Sammy's Facebook page, childish, sadistic graffiti spray-painted on his tombstone, endless talk-show hosts who condemn them as parents without ever meeting them, and thrill-seeking teens who break into their home to "investigate" all they can about the "Psycho murderer." How many times have we seen headlines like this and thought, "It's the parents fault" without giving any real consideration to who the parents really are and how confused and saddened they must be to lose a child?
Equally impressive is the first-rate direction by Shawn Ku, who restrains the dramatics to the point of sheer plausibility and whose indulgence in hand-held cameras is neither excessive nor obtrusive. The best thing about it, it bears repeating, is the absence of maudlin emotions and tear-wrenching, sappy speeches or music. The scenes are all well thought out, extremely credible and ultimately satisfying. For a while, I thought they had stopped making films like this. The pedestrian premise initially prompted me to give it just four stars, but in the end I was so satisfied by this marvelously well-done, old-fashioned drama that I can't see how it deserves less than five.