Saturday, February 18, 2012

Beautiful Boy

When Seung-Hui Cho wreaked havoc on Virginia Tech in April 2007, the entire country wanted to know why. What causes a quiet, shy kid to to go on a mad ass crazy rampage, killing 32 people, wounding 25 others, before ultimately taking his own life? In the days following Cho's attack, the media was in a frenzy to discover The Why.  Reports that Cho was the victim of incestuousness sexual abuse broke, photos of Cho posing as the lead character from Oldboy caused people to blame the movies, and so on. But others, myself included, wanted to go to the source. I wanted to hear what Cho's parents had to say. Did they see this coming? Had their son shown psychopathic tendencies in the past? How could they live with themselves? Not as the parents who raised a monster, but as the parents who had just lost their son.

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.
Now for some moments of clarity. As Kate and Bill, Maria Bello and Michael Sheen deliver work on par with the best acting they've done. Sheen plays Bill as a reserved workaholic; uncommunicative, weak, and often petty, a stark contrast to Bello's cold, domineering depiction of Kate. Maria Bello is one of my favorite actresses, and I've been a fan of Sheen's since he made The Queen bearable, and the work that they do here (namely an extended, extremely unsettling verbal argument in a motel room), should've given Beautiful Boy a wider audience.

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+


  1. Thought this was a solid drama. Michael Sheen always puts in his usual great performance.

  2. @Ty Yeah without him and Bello, I'm not sure I would've enjoyed it at all.

  3. Nice review! Hadn't heard about this but definitely interested to see it now. On the subject of school shootings, I recommend Zero Day if you haven't seen it. Definitely won't be to everyone's taste though.

  4. @Pete Wow that sounds crazy intense, like a more in your face Elephant, which is by far the best film I've ever seen about this subject. Thanks for the recco buddy!

  5. I remember Michael Phillips giving this a strong positive review.

    Sounds powerful and captivating - and Sheen is always great.

    Good review.

  6. I'm a huge Michael Sheen fan and I think this is the only movie of his I haven't seen. I don't think any performance of his will ever top what he did in "Dirty Filthy Love" but I'm definetly going to see BB soon. Great review, as always!

  7. @Sam Fragoso Thanks buddy, it was an intense little flick, deserved more recognition than it received.

  8. @Sati. Thanks! Haven't seen Dirty Filthy Love, just watched a few clips, looks great.