Considering how common the tragedy of school shootings has become in our society, it is strange how infrequently this phenomena appears on both the silver and the TV screen. Perhaps this is because understanding these incidents is difficult, even when it comes to fiction. In Beautiful Boy, director Shawn Ku attempts to explore unanswerable questions by depicting a married couple who are torn apart by the death of their son, a college student who is both the victim and culprit of a massively fatal school shooting.
Maria Bello and Micheal Sheen play Kate and Eric, a married couple on the brink of separation. Despite living in the same home, the two move in completely separate spheres: eating dinner apart, sleeping in separate beds, and conversing with one another from different rooms. Their coldness to one another seems to have spread to their sole child, Sam (Kyle Gallner), who is attending college away from home.
Beautiful Boy opens with Sam reading a short story aloud, sadly recalling a long gone happy memory of his family at the beach. Eyes large and heavy with sadness, he calls his family from his dorm room and tries to communicate his frustration. His parents, however, are completely distracted by their own troubles, and unable to register his need for help.
The next morning the couple’s routine is interrupted by news of the shooting at Sam's school. Panicked, Kate fruitlessly attempts to get in touch with Sam. When the police finally come to their door, Kate and Eric learn that the truth is more terrible than even their greatest fear: not only is Sam dead but he is the sole perpetrator of the shooting.
With the media waiting on their doorstep, and the phone ringing incessantly, the two find themselves unable to carry on with their normal lives. Unsure of who to turn to and where to go, Kate and Eric walk away from what they knew. At first this tragedy seems to push Kate and Eric further apart, but eventually it's the only thing big enough to hold the couple together.
The question that haunts Kate and Eric, and no doubt the parents of real-life shooters, is how they could have created a child capable of carrying out such an unspeakable act. The two are forced to face this question amid intermittent snippets of television footage showing their son explaining his actions. Defying cliche, Sam is never made out to be overly angry or monstrous; rather, he is shown to be a boy ripped apart by the seemingly bleak world around him.
In the end, it is the raw and unsettling internal examination of a disjointed couple’s struggle to reunite in the midst of an an overwhelming crisis that is the sole focus of this film. Bello and Sheen give incredible, understated, and emotionally bare performances in which they portray the anguish of their characters without seeming overly dramatic. Both prove themselves to be immensely gifted actors, skilled at lending realism and believability to the most unbelievable of moments.