Blu-Ray Review: Fine Performances Bolster Shawn Ku’s ‘Beautiful Boy’

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CHICAGO – While Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” meticulously chronicles the troubled upbringing that leads a kid to shoot up his school, Shawn Ku’s “Beautiful Boy” centers on the days following the senseless slaughter, as the shooter’s devastated parents are left to pick up the pieces. Though both pictures share similar themes, the latter takes a more familiar and less unsettling approach to the material.

It’s clear that Ku is aiming for the sort of raw observation and wrenching drama typified by Todd Field’s 2001 masterpiece, “In the Bedroom,” but it ultimately falls short of its aspirations. There’s an obvious formula to the dramatic arcs of each character that leaves little room for ambiguity. It might’ve been a standard weepie destined for Lifetime if it weren’t for the superb central performances by Maria Bello and Michael Sheen. Blu-Ray Rating: 3.0/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 3.0/5.0

In the film’s solemn opening moments, it initially seems as if Ku had chosen to begin the story in the aftermath of the tragedy. A void of communication conspicuously looms throughout the house inhabited by Bill (Sheen) and his wife Kate (Bello). They’re rarely framed in the same shot and are further separated by an assortment of visual motifs. A three-way phone call with their son Sammy (Kyle Gallner), a sullen freshman in college, effectively establishes the characters in each of their isolated worlds. Yet once Sammy’s sudden shooting spree claims multiple lives including his own, the couple is forced to face the underlying problems in their strained marriage while struggling to cope with an overwhelming sense of guilt.

Michael Sheen and Maria Bello star in Shawn Ku’s Beautiful Boy.
Michael Sheen and Maria Bello star in Shawn Ku’s Beautiful Boy.
Photo credit: Anchor Bay Entertainment

Bello does a fine job of exploring the unpredictable nature of grief and how it can hit hard at random moments. She also perfectly captures Kate’s innate need to throw herself into projects in order to escape her despair, even if it means micromanaging the lives of her brother and his family. Sheen’s performance is more restrained at first, since Bill is a ticking time bomb of bottled-up rage not unlike his son.
When Sammy reappears in an apologetic video filmed for his parents, it ends up triggering a violent shouting match in which all of the couple’s repressed feelings come raging to the surface. Both actors are in excellent form, but the needlessly sloppy handheld cinematography by Michael Fimognari is a glaring distraction. For all of the script’s emotional fireworks and manufactured revelations, there’s very little insight to be gleaned from this story. Though Ku’s portrayal of heartless talking heads (a la Nancy Grace) cluttering the media coverage with self-aggrandizement is spot-on, it’s merely one element in this all-too-predictable brew.

Beautiful Boy was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Oct. 11, 2011.
Beautiful Boy was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Oct. 11, 2011.
Photo credit: Anchor Bay Entertainment

“Beautiful Boy” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English and Spanish audio tracks, and includes diverting audio commentary from Ku, Fimognari and editor Chad Galster. The director discusses character motivations and dynamics at length, though his explanations for Sammy’s behavior still sound distressingly pat (“we don’t communicate well, societally speaking”). He doesn’t consider Sammy mentally ill, and argues that he’s a mere product of alienation mixed with a fatal cocktail of everyday pressures. The overarching lesson is for parents to be actively involved in their families rather than act as casual participants. It’s a well-intentioned message, but too shallow to truly provoke. Ku admits that his script was inspired by the Virginia Tech shooting, as well as the traumatic personal experience of having a friend die in his house and breaking the news to his parents. His writing partner, Michael Armbruster, had just gone through the hurtles of adoption, thus giving him added insight into the stress faced by parents intending to give their children a proper upbringing.
A great deal of effort was put into staging the fiery argument that Bello and Sheen performed in eleven consecutive nine-minute takes, most of which were marred by feedback on Sheen’s mic. Fimognari’s goal was to utilize a documentary style that stripped away the artifice, though Ku admits that the early moment where Bello first learns of her son’s death was blatantly modeled after a scene in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “21 Grams” where Naomi Watts receives similarly tragic news. The approach works well for Ku’s film, but it also feels faintly derivative throughout. Too many segments feel like inferior versions of superior films, including the deleted supermarket confrontation where Bello apologizes to the mother of a child who her son gunned down. The actress playing the mother is underwhelming, but what really hurts the scene is its striking similarity to “In the Bedroom”’s shattering confrontation between Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei. Ku is a promising filmmaker, but he has yet to establish a style that he can claim as his own.

‘Beautiful Boy’ is released by Anchor Bay Entertainment and stars Maria Bello, Michael Sheen, Alan Tudyk, Moon Bloodgood, Austin Nichols and Kyle Gallner. It was written by Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku and directed by Shawn Ku. It was released on Oct. 11, 2011. It is rated R. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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