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Beautiful Boy
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by Erik Childress

"Is Kyle Gallner Ever Happy?"
3 stars

Losing a child is a tragedy that nobody who hasn't faced it can possibly comprehend. We may know someone, a family member or a friend, who has lost someone before their time. Movies and television shows are quick to put a child in jeopardy to create suspense, but few are ever willing to test the limits of actually following through with the worst. There have also been countless films that have tried to communicate that pain, using the dead child as a jumping off point to explore grief and its stages. Two of these films debuted just last September at the Toronto Film Festival. One was Rabbit Hole, which used the death of a very young child to alternately tear apart and bring together his parents. The other was Shawn Ku's Beautiful Boy, which upped the stakes on the circumstances surrounding a family's loss. But with so many fresh avenues to take on, it nevertheless comes up short as the lesser of the two films.

Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate (Maria Bello) are on the fringe of separating. Bill has already started to look at apartments. Kate believes a family vacation could help smooth things over. They talk to their sullen, lonely son, Sammy (Kyle Gallner) off away at college for suggestions. He doesn't care. They all go to sleep. The next morning the news is awash in the story of over 20 dead on a college campus, victims of a school shooter. Police show up to Bill & Kate's door to tell him that not only is Sammy dead, but he was also the shooter. To avoid the press, the couple move in with Kate's brother (Alan Tudyk), his wife (Moon Bloodgood) and their little boy. The inevitable questions begin to surface. Why did he do it? Who is to blame? What could Bill & Kate have done to prevent it? Answers are in short supply, but the screenplay by Ku and Michael Armbruster spend so much time re-introducing them that it only presents an audience with further unanswered questions that prove to be even more prevalent.

Coming up with a definitive reason for why Sammy did what he did would be disingenuous in what Ku has set out to accomplish. Gus Van Sant in his Columbine-inspired film, Elephant, presented all the available causes that society has tried to associate with these acts of violence but left them hanging for the audience to decide whether any of them were ever a reason at all. Lonely, sullen, "kept to himself" or simply casting the sleepy-eyed mass murderer of Veronica Mars season two are all simple enough reasons. But in presenting the tragedy through the eyes of the parents, Ku is in position to cast a little empathy on parental figures who are always lambasted in the media as the source for such behavior. And, in that respect, by the end we still know very little about them.

There are several scenes that work very well within the simplicity of what they have lost. Bill calling his son's phone to leave a message and Kate singing Sammy's favorite lullaby to her nephew have a genuine poignancy and Ku lets his actors own the moment. In-between though there is scene after scene of limbo and wondering what went wrong. Kate is a perfectionist and Bill is an absentee father (a definition even he calls a cliche) is not a fair place to leave this social conundrum. Best to either expand on it or never try to define it at all in words. We can appreciate the script leaving out psychiatrists or big scenes of the victims' parents awkwardly confronting Bill and Kate. But building up to a big fight after a night of drunken amorous just to underscore the fury of Kate's "red pen" within the poor choice to film the confrontation hand-held is rather amateurish and has an audience noticing the proverbial match on the carpet rather than the fire it has started in the room.

Sheen and Bello are good here, even better in those individual moments than their hot-headed scenes together. They just have nowhere for Beautiful Boy to take them. Unlike the rather basic idea of Rabbit Hole being spun into other areas of forgiveness and catharsis (though there's a less-convincing involvement of a writer here), Ku's film exists in a bubble that just keeps floating until it pops. Occasional glimpses of the media and citizen reactions to the event come off as over-the-top and silly. Especially Meat Loaf's cameo (yes, Meat Loaf) as a motel manager who one minute is comparing Sammy to Charles Manson to Bill's face and then later telling him how he kept the press away from him. Did he have a change of heart, absolving him of fault or was there just a scene missing where he discovers who Bill really is? Moments like that, a break-in to their house (that they avoid going back to despite giving the now absent press it's statement) and its overly simplistic ending help to cut out the heart of the matter rather than getting to it. Parents cannot always control crazy, but Beautiful Boy is not going to help absolve the next mom and dad whose quiet, sullen kid snaps.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=21521&reviewer=198
originally posted: 06/10/11 14:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Dallas International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Dallas International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  03-Jun-2011 (R)
  DVD: 11-Oct-2011

UK
  N/A

Australia
  03-Jun-2011
  DVD: 11-Oct-2011


Directed by
  Shawn Ku

Written by
  Michael Armbruster
  Shawn Ku

Cast
  Michael Sheen
  Maria Bello
  Moon Bloodgood
  Bruce French
  Kyle Gallner
  Nigel Gibbs



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