Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Beautiful Boy - The Process of grief and questions

What could possibly be worse than the death of a child? Maybe the fact that the child killed a roomful of innocent people before taking his own life. That is the premise of Shawn Ku's 'Beautiful Boy', an earnest yet visceral look at parents left reeling under the weight of unimaginable tragedy, trying to make sense of it. In the suburbs of LA, resides the family of Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate (Maria Bello), empty nesters whose only son Sammy (Kyle Gallner) is a freshman at a university. The couple lead separate lives, never sharing meals, sleeping in separate bedrooms, almost at the verge of divorce. Kate wants a try at a happy family by planning a vacation for them, a feeling not too enthusiastically shared by her husband, who scouts apartment listings in private.

Their son Sammy, only shown momentarily, makes a phone call to them. It is obvious he is troubled and possibly feeling alienated at school. Kate picks up something to be amiss in Sammy's tone, but as parents usually get too absorbed in their own lives, she lets it drop. The next morning as they watch panic stricken on TV about a deadly shooting in their son's university, police officers arrive at their door to inform not only of their son's death but of the reality that it was he who had opened fire that killed seventeen people before turning the gun on himself. From hereon, begins a journey of no return for parents who must live with not just the weight of this entire tragedy, but the question of having gone wrong in their parenting.

Grieving a dead child is terrible in itself without the burden of guilt and the outrage of the public, it's many questions. The looks of people who wonder how terrible as parents could they have been to have nurtured a monster. It is an extremely hard subject to pull off. It hits home especially in the aftermath of the many campus massacres in recent times. This is entirely from the parents perspective. Escaping from the media onslaught, they take refuge with Kate's brother (Alan Tudyk) and his family. While Kate tries to escape the questions her mind surely forms, Bill faces them headlong. In the film's crucial scene, they have escaped society for a little while hiding in a motel, trying to forget momentarily a pain that will inevitably be carried around a lifetime. They get drunk, make love and find a long lost connection, only to have reality shatter it. Accusations are hurled, on parenting, its absence, a failed marriage.

'Beautiful Boy' worked for me on so many levels. It takes an almost forbidden topic and treats it with utmost sensitivity, yet does not shirk the questions. The realistic screenplay and the director's brave vision is aided by the pitch perfect acts of Michael sheen and Maria Bello. Sheen, as the father wondering too late, understanding the unforgivable nature of his son's crime and noticing painfully how the world is suddenly turning hostile, is brilliant in a largely internalized performance. Maria Bello is equally so as the  disciplinarian mother who meant well, tried to push her shy, withdrawn kid out of his shell and now grappling with thoughts of whether she shouldn't have. In this duel between a mother defensive of her parenting and dead child and a father who questions, fireworks occur. And yet they are the only two people who can understand each other and be supportive in a world sure to go hostile.

Shawn Ku, for whom this was the first directorial feature, happens to have taken both from the Virginia Tech massacre and a friend's death leaving behind grieving parents, to come out with a tale palpable in its grief and doubts. The beauty is that he resists the temptation to focus on the event itself and it's ensuing drama and instead taps into the lifetime of pain that the parents now face.

Originally Released in 2010
Available on DVD
My Rating: 4/5

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