J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Parents in Hell: Beautiful Boy

Parents think they know their greatest nightmare. Sadly, one nearly estranged couple experiences anguish beyond their worst fears in Shawn Ku’s Beautiful Boy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Bill and Kate might not have been the best parents in the world, but they stayed together for the sake of their son, Sammy. As a father, Bill has been a bit aloof. Conversely, Kate has been a somewhat overbearing mother. Together, they were probably about average. Certainly, they were not abusive or overtly destabilizing. Yet, something went profoundly wrong. Always a relative loner, the troubled Sammy turned into a monster, setting off on a campus killing spree before taking his own life. Confused and bereft, Bill and Kate find themselves pariahs in the community, grieving parents who are not allowed to grieve.

Wisely, Boy never shows the horrific act directly, only revealing details obliquely and sporadically as the devastated parents attempt to shut out the world. However, Ku walks a perilously fine line in his approach to Sammy. Granted, he offers nothing to excuse or in any way ameliorate Sammy’s ghastly actions. Yet, early in the film viewers see him through his parents’ eyes, as a rather sheepish young man. This has a humanizing effect, regardless of intent. As a result, anyone who has lost a loved one in an incident like the Fort Hood shooting should probably avoid Boy.

Left with only fragments of a marriage on the rocks, Bill and Kate will be spared nothing. In truly visceral performances, Michael Sheen and Maria Bello strip themselves naked in every way imaginable as the couple struggles with guilt, anguish, denial, and resentment. In fact, they are even moments of surprisingly mature physical intimacy (but to the regret of Maxim readers, none involve Moon Bloodgood, who is largely wasted as Kate’s sister-in-law, Trish).

Some of the film’s promotional copy suggests the tragedy will bring Bill and Kate back together in unexpected ways. Though not necessarily false, circumstances are far more complicated than a pat Oprah ending would permit. Indeed, Ku and co-writer Michael Armbruster have little truck with easy sentiment, while Sheen and Bello are simply too honest and raw to indulge in cliché.

Did I mention Moon Bloodgood is in this film? It bears repeating, because Boy is so oppressively claustrophobic and dashed disconsolate, viewers will need something—anything—to hold onto. (Perhaps Meat Loaf in a brief but sensitively turned supporting role works for you instead.) Without question, Bello and Sheen put on a true acting clinic, but the cumulative effect is exhausting. A film worthy of respect and praise, but difficult to recommend to those looking for a little escapism as they go about the challenging business of life, Boy opens this Friday (6/3) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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