“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” –Hamlet
There is no sorrow like the sorrow felt when a child dies. Couple that with news that this same child went on a shooting rampage, killing 17 innocent people before turning the gun on himself and even Shakespeare would have trouble finding the words to describe the pain. I watched Beautiful Boy thinking of my own children and wondering what I would do if it were my doorbell that officers rang to report a monstrous act my child had committed. My kids are still in that cutsie stage where it is unimaginable to think that they could inflict such evil. But if I’ve learned anything in my almost 10 years as a parent, it’s that I don’t have the control I wish I had in regards to the decisions that my children make. Beautiful Boy was a hard film to sit through because of its stark realism, thanks to bravura performances by Michael Sheen and Maria Bello as two parents who are in the unenviable position of knowing their sweet beautiful boy turned into a horrible monster.
Bill Carroll is a successful businessman, Kate Carroll is a dedicated book editor and their son Sammy is a freshman in college. Sounds like a perfectly normal upper-middle class family; until it is revealed that their son shot and killed 17 people at school and then took his own life. With their marriage already on life support, the couple tries to sort out their relationship as they come to terms with the loss of a son they really didn’t know and the horrible crime he committed.
Beautiful Boy is a film that at the peripherals is about a disturbed young man who commits a terrible crime. However, that is but a backdrop to the story of the strained relationship of married couple, played by Michael Sheen (TRON: Legacy) and Maria Bello (History of Violence). Even before son Sammy’s brutal and selfish act, it looked as if their marriage was being held together by chewing gum and bailing wire; with Bill checking out apartment listings at the same time Kate’s trying to organize a family vacation she thinks they all need, but one that Bill has no desire to go on. Kate is living in a fantasy while ignoring the disaster that her marriage has become.
This was a tough film to watch and review, not because it is a bad movie — it’s a great film — but because there is a real life, uncomfortable quality that made me want to run and hide. The subject matter is ripped right out of the headlines but not done in a sensationalized manner highlighting the senseless act; instead it deals with parents reeling from the actions of a son they thought they knew. Afterwards I felt as if I had to distance myself from the film in order to write something that wasn’t just me wondering aloud if this could happen to my family. Kate Carroll reacted sometimes as I imagine myself reacting in a similar situation: getting her house in order in a life that was completely out of control. While Kate tried to maintain any amount of normalcy, Bill just checked out, building an emotional wall that he began construction on long ago. It was Bello’s portrayal of Kate, a perfectionist who demanded so much from others, that hit me the hardest, because she possessed qualities that I see in myself and ones I don’t care to admit to, thank you very much. I watched with a sort of cold detachment, because really I didn’t want to feel what these people were, didn’t want to think it was within the realm of possibility that the sweet kids sleeping in the other room could do such a terrible thing years from now.
Bill Carroll is a cold detached father who, the night before the slaughter Sammy committed, callously left a phone conversation with his son after only a few moments so he could partake in his TV time. His realization that he was an absentee father gives him an immense amount of guilt causing him to point fingers at his controlling wife in order to negate anything he felt he may have done. Bill uses work to escape his family, but after Sammy’ death his job gives him time off to grieve. When he doesn’t have work to escape to, Bill is forced to deal with his marriage and talk to a wife he really didn’t feel comfortable opening up to.
One scene in Beautiful Boy that I thought to be profound, was neighbor Bonnie (Deidrie Henry, Bones) talking with Kate after hearing that she and Bill separated; Bonnie’s daughter went to the same school as Sammy but escaped unhurt. She told her friend Kate that it was too bad that she wouldn’t be able to get through this with Bill by her side, “There aren’t too many people who understand what you’re going through.” How true. Bill and Kate are in a select club they wanted no part of, still, this doesn’t instinctively send them into each other’s arms for comfort.
It’s evident from the very first frame of Beautiful Boy that the Carroll marriage is the focus of the film. Sammy’s crime only highlights the troubles of a couple who left each other emotionally a long time ago. In an early scene director Shawn Ku, in his first feature length movie, does a fabulous job of showing the tension between husband and wife. We can feel their discomfort as they maneuver around their kitchen speaking in clipped sentences, eager to retire to separate areas of the house; Kate to her computer and Bill escaping into the world of television. This film is touching and powerful, anchored by the strong performances of Bello and Sheen. They are Bill and Kate for those 101 minutes, honestly experiencing every bit of pain and anguish of their onscreen counterparts.
Beautiful Boy is presented in 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, with the audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film has a brownish hue which adds to the sense of loss and sorrow experienced. Not much in the way of extras, just some deleted scenes and a commentary by director Shawn Ku. Extras aren’t necessary, what more can you add to such a powerful story?
Beautiful Boy has the trifecta of ingredients that make a fantastic movie: great acting, writing, and directing. The characters have depth and whew far more than stilted figures on celluloid, pretending something terrible happened. Sammy Carroll was a disturbed young man and the movie never gives us any real answers as to why he ended up doing such a horrible thing. Beautiful Boy does not paint the parents as the cause of Sammy’s act; life is more complicated than accusing an overbearing perfectionist mom and a distant dad of causing a sick individual to go on a homicidal rampage. I wonder how the parents of Dylan Kliebold and Eric Harris let the brutal murders perpetrated by their sons at Columbine shape their lives afterwards. Did they cling to each other, the only other person who could understand what they were going through?
Beautiful Boy (DVD)
2011, Anchor Bay, 101 minutes, R (2010)
VIDEO: 1.78:1 AUDIO: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 2.0 (Spanish) SUBTITLES: English (SDH), Spanish
EXTRAS: Commentary, Deleted Scenes ACCOMPLICES: IMDB