Saturday, February 18, 2012
I was rather close to the Virginia Tech madness. When the attack happened, I was a journalism student at a college roughly 200 miles from Tech. One of my professors encouraged us to travel to Blacksburg to cover the story. I declined, but I was always curious to hear the parents' side. Cho's family wisely steered clear of the press, which means were left with fictional accounts like Beautiful Boy to help fill in the gaps.
In Beautiful Boy (which, for the record, is an awful title for this film), unhappily married suburban couple, Kate and Bill (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen), are devastated and stunned when their only son, Sammy murders several people in cold blood at his college. And because Sammy kills himself, Kate and Bill are only left to wonder. The press soon descends on their lawn, begging for answers similar to those posed following Cho's attack. And as Kate and Bill flee to privately wallow in their agony, we become privy to a gut-wrenching story of confounded loss. How do you explain to the world what you cannot explain yourself?
Now, Beautiful Boy (unlike the similarly themed We Need to Talk About Kevin), is not a great film. Its style has the stamp of an amateur filmmaker, and its writing is, at times, equal to that of a film school student trying to finish his latest script in time for class. When Kate and Bill retreat to Kate's brother's house, the movie hits a very dangerous, very slow lag. It drags on and on with no development (character, story, or otherwise) in sight. And this, I suspect, is precisely the intention of first time director Shawn Ku. With the film's slow pacing, Ku, I think, is attempting to show what it would really be like. How do you talk or walk or buy groceries after your son has done such a horrible thing? How do you even consider carrying on?
To that story execution, I say fair enough. The film's problem isn't the story it tells, it's how, at times, it chooses to display that story. The film is shot digitally in extreme close-up; sometimes it cuts away incessantly within a scene, sometimes it runs extended single takes (with the camera whipping back and forth to whoever is talking). This technique is effective, until it's not. It works for some scenes, and for others, it brings the film as a whole down.
In short, while Beautiful Boy has pacing issues (it lags, then seriously picks up, then lags again) and style problems (in addition to uneven cinematography and editing, the swelling music often hinders what's happening), the film is an uncompromising look at the other side of horror. When tragedies like the Virginia Tech massacre occur, we're often focused on the families of the victims. Rarely is the family on the other side given equal (or dare I say, fair) attention to explain. Kate and Bill (and Ku) may not have all the answers, but when turmoil is played this effectively, it's hard to look away. B+