A couple wrestle with the fact that their son launched into a Columbine-/VA Tech-esque massacre. Am I talking about We Need to Talk about Kevin, the formally daring Lynne Ramsay drama with a killer Tilda Swinton turn that just played Cannes? Or is it Beautiful Boy, its more conventional doppelganger which might as well be renamed I Can’t Believe We’re Not Talking About Kevin? Thanks to bum timing, moviegoers who’ve read about the former will for now have to settle for the latter, and while the presence of a snazzier-sounding picture with the same plot and even better actors does Shawn Ku’s earnest grief-o-rama no favors, at least it gives an unthinkable subject the old college try.
Maria Bello and Michael Sheen play the parents of a college freshman who hasn’t even completed a semester before he snaps. The resulting film sticks inside the parents’ bubble as they hole up and heal, first with ever-patient family members (and their less patient spouses) and later in a roadside motel for the requisite truant shout-fest. (But not before some boozy make-up sex offers predictably false hope.)
Throughout, Ku and co-writer Michael Ambruster pretend to be allergic to grandiose, Psych 101 analysis. But they’re fine with scores of little ones. Mom is a professional proofreader, read: nitpicky and overbearing. Meanwhile, Dad is a catatonic manchild prone with deeply suppressed rage. Inside their pricey suburban manse they’re more roommates than loving couple, sleeping in separate rooms and communicating via neanderthalic grunts. Naturally they begin to question whether they created a psycho, and the film’s purported avoidance of easy answers only makes it more disappointing when it comes to the reductive conclusion that angry Sheen is a ticking time bomb who simply never went off—like son, like father.
Beautiful Boy fares better with Bello, both character and actor. Though the role has been conceived as a castrating monster, Bello refuses to play her as written; she’s warm, three-dimensional and, unlike Sheen, on an unpredictable character path. Boy deserves kudos for following a difficult topic into (some) dark and underexplored areas, albeit not too underexplored: it’s essentially In the Bedroom minus the moronic third act.