In this nearly terrifying age where our children are growing significantly faster than we want them to, fear, anxiety, and near paranoia starts to overtake the best of parents. In America, we have witnessed, in this generation alone, some of the most evil ever conducted by mankind in all of history; the fall of the twin towers, the war in Iraq, the shooting massacre in Virginia Tech, all terrible staples in my memory and I’m not even thirty yet. What other horrors will this lifetime bring? As a new father, I want to wrap my daughter Sophia in a bubble and never let her see the light of day for fear of what she may either endure or be influenced by. Shawn Ku’s Beautiful Boy examines the aftermath of a young man, Sammy, that commits a mass shooting at his school and ultimately takes his own life. Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate (Maria Bello) are your average married couple. Held back by grief, guilt, and rage, Bill and Kate undertake the scrutiny from the presses and the families as the sole reasons for young Sammy’s demise. How could you move on from a nightmare you couldn’t wake up from?
Ku takes on the story with ferocity, examining a vast subject, which perks our ears up and raises our eyebrows. Ultimately Ku fails at getting down to the emotional center of this tale. The narrative picks up rather quickly from the beginning but loses pace and theme quickly. It’s not necessarily a failure on Ku’s part or co-writer Michael Armbruster, simply not as evolutionary in terms of independent filmmaking. The premise is enticing enough to withstand its flaws and it does have moments of brilliance, especially in the scenes following the shooting. However, it’s the powerful performances of Michael Sheen and Maria Bello that hook the viewer in and safely guide throughout.
Michael Sheen delivers his finest performance since his towering work in Stephen Frears’ The Queen. Sheen attacks the character unlike anything seen from him before. He is engaged and delivers the emotional peril of a heartbroken father attempting to pick up the pieces in the most magnificent ways possible. Sheen invites the viewer into his world, showing the ugliest and worst parts about him, and letting us form our own opinion. Downright brilliant.
Maria Bello, who I fell in love with in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, handles Kate with care, love, and ease. Bello’s precision and dedication to the craft stands nearly on the top of most actresses today. It also equals one of her finest works in years. Her heart-on-the-sleeve approach not only allows us to respect Kate but it transforms her into a clear sign and example of masterclass acting. Where it can easily be taken over the top, Bello holds it right to the edge, never pushing us over.
In a rare and personal plea, these two performances should well be on the Oscar radar. As a small and obviously personal film, Michael Sheen and Maria Bello deliver clear and cut, two of the most worthy performances of award’s recognition this year. It’s reminiscent of the same feeling Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams delivered in their powerful works in last year’s Blue Valentine. In his briefest scenes, Kyle Gallner (Sammy) boils his performance to the rim and delivers a clever and daring performance.
Beautiful Boy has raw and emotional power without falling all over itself with melodrama, but it does come up short in some narrative regards. But with these two talented actors in tow, the film will knock your socks right off in simple artistry.