Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bello and Sheen in Shawn Ku's BEAUTIFUL BOY: difficult, riveting and awe-inspiring

We've had films about mass murder in high school and university (Elephant and the under-seen but very good Dark Matter come immediately to mind) but until now I don't believe there has been a movie about this subject shown exclusively from the perspective of the parents of the murderer. The very idea of this broadens and enriches our understanding, but who would have guessed that a relatively fledgling filmmaker like Shawn Ku, director and co-writer (along with Michael Armbruster), would come up with something that's, yes, difficult to watch, but increasingly riveting and finally an awe-inspiring accomplishment? We'll soon be getting another film on this topic (Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin), but for now BEAUTIFUL BOY is the first out of the gate.

As writers, Ku (shown at left, on set) and Armbruster choose their details carefully. We never see the massacre (we don't need to), but each tiny bit of information the writers provide about the parents adds to our understanding. And thankfully, we are given none of those cheap "a-hah!" moments. As much as we grasp about these adults and their child (a barely-seen Kyle Gallner, below, who makes his every short appearance count), full comprehension of the event, and how and why it came to be, while desperately needed, remains elusive -- for us and for them.

TrustMovies is usually not a big fan of the hand-held camera, and the more he gets of it in a single sitting, the more jumpy and fretful (just like that camera) he can become. Having said that, Mr. Ku's use of this technique is extraordinary. (His cinematographer, Michael Fimognari, is also responsible for the recent grabber Brotherhood and the smart-but-underseen teen movie Dare.)

Together these two keep that camera moving and come in close, then closer, until you know you're prying.  And yet you go along gladly because Ku and Fimognari know when to move in, how far, and when to stop. They value quiet, and so we're able to be about as close as possible to our protagonists, played by the it-doesn't get-much-better-than Maria Bello (above) and Michael Sheen (below). We enter their minds, and get under their skin. And due to the spot-on work of these actors, the dialog seems so real as to be have been improvised (though I doubt very much that it was.)

By definition these parents, Bill and Kate, bear some responsibility for their son Sammy's actions, but exactly how much? And what might they have done to prevent this? Bill initially will have none of the "responsibility" thing, and Sheen makes it clear that the character cannot begin to face reality yet. Bello's Kate faces it immediately but get too wrapped up in the guilt and the why and the how. Both fall apart in their own way, as they stay with Kate's brother and his wife -- fine jobs from Alan Tudyk (below, right) and Moon Bloodgood (center, right) -- who open their home indefinitely to the pair. Meatloaf Aday (shown, right, in the photo at bottom) also does a beautiful job as the clerk at the motel where Sheen finally retreats.

As we delve further inside our pair, we can't help but empathize as they hear (often by sudden accident) the TV news reports. One particularly nasty FOX-News-type commentator's take on these parents should make you recoil for life from this sort of hate-mongering. Yet, as much as we enter the souls of the two, the ferocity and finality of what their son has done is never far away. It eats around every scene, and into nearly every moment.  How in the world, the movie asks us over and over again, do we empathize with and understand people in this position?  The movie's greatness comes from the fact that it enables us, finally, to do exactly that -- and to a greater extent than we could possibly imagine going in.

For all caring parents -- as problemed as we are, and as many mistakes as we make -- Beautiful Boy will be punishing. But it should be equally rewarding. Utterly specific and beautifully realized, this story of the parents of a boy gone brutally haywire will certainly be among the best films of the year.

Beautiful Boy (from Anchor Bay Films, 100 minutes) opens in select cities this Friday, June 3. In New York, catch it at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Angelika Film Center. Click here for playdates and showtimes elsewhere.

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