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Beautiful Boy

A Parent's Worst Nightmare

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

In articles, books, docudramas, and films focusing on school shootings and their aftermath, attention, inevitably, turns toward the parents of the shooter or shooters.

Blame, either for tolerating or ignoring the antisocial behavior that led to the shooting, usually falls to the parents of the shooter, due in part to the need to make sense of the senseless violence and to find the reason why a teenager or college student turned to violence.

Ultimately, however, any explanation seems incomplete, especially in comparison to the disproportionate response involved. Shawn Ku’s film, Beautiful Boy, doesn’t attempt to find answeres as much as it follows the aftermath of a parent’s worst nightmare coming true.

Beautiful Boy opens only hours before Sammy (Kyle Gallner, A Haunting in Connecticut), a freshman at an unnamed college, goes on a shooting spree that leaves more than a dozen dead (including himself) and many more wounded. A phone call to his parents, Kate (Maria Bello, A History of Violence, The Cooler) and Bill (Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon, The Queen), seems to be the one, last attempt to reconnect with them, but their disinterest dissuades him from exchanging more than banal pleasantries with them.

Kate, obsessed with the impending dissolution of her marriage to Bill, chats about an upcoming vacation plan. Bill, ready and eager to exit what he sees as an unsalvageable marriage, fixates on finding an apartment and, presumably, beginning a new life as a single man.

Kate and Bill first hear about the campus shooting on the local news. Hoping for the best, but fearing the worst, they await news, any news, about their son. When two police detectives appear at their door, they immediately know their son is dead. The detectives barely pause, however, before revealing that Sammy was responsible for the shooting. With the media camped in front of their door, Bill and Kate head to what seems at first sanctuary, the home of Kate’s brother, Eric (Alan Tudyk), Eric’s wife, Trish (Moon Bloodgood), and their son, but tensions, past and present, begin to surface.

Kate attempts to transfer her maternal feelings toward Eric and Trish’s son, a decision, however unintentional, that raises the troubling question of the contribution Kate and Bill’s parenting skills (or lack thereof) contributed to Sammy’s violent, nihilistic behavior.

Ku sidesteps the psychological reductivism or melodrama typical of TV-Movies-of-the-Week. When we meet Sammy in the prologue, he's reading a poem to disinterested classmates about a long-ago memory, a happier time with his parents. His classmates’ non-response serves as the final trigger (if, indeed, it is that), to spur him into lashing out against a world he claims has “ravaged his heart.” Sammy’s call to his parents remains ambiguous, to say good-bye, perhaps, or to be convinced that he matters to his parents more than just a prop for their floundering relationship.

Ku also avoids the responsibility issue in part by sending the character to college, alone, rather than high school where, presumably, his parents could more readily perceive (assuming they were looking) his slide into mental and emotional psychosis. It works to defuse the accusation — an accusation critics of Beautiful Boy’s premise will make, sight unseen — of the parents' individual and collective responsibility. Ku leaves it for the audience to decide, a decision that some moviegoers might see as a cop-out. Others might see a confluence of events and influences that led to the mass murder.

Both Michael Sheen and Maria Bello handle difficult, challenging roles with maximal subtlety and minimal histrionics. Ku asks them to imagine the unimaginable, and even when the material (Ku co-wrote Beautiful Boy with Michael Armbruster) fails to match their talents, either through a lack of profundity or an excess of style, they never falter. The give their characters one grace note after another, making the expected, but certainly not inevitable, reconciliation convincing both emotionally and dramatically.