I remember thinking that I had already seen BEAUTIFUL BOY before I actually saw it. Not to say I had seen the film itself already but that I had come across a number of variations on the plot prior. Michael Sheen and Maria Bello play parents who lose a child and we watch them grieve and grow apart. Only BEAUTIFUL BOY is not that movie. Sheen and Bello do lose a child and they do grieve for him but before their only boy kills himself, he shoots and kills several other of his classmates at college. This movie, I most certainly had not seen before.
First time feature filmmaker, Shawn Ku, knows that BEAUTIFUL BOY is not an easy sell. “We set out to write a movie that touched people,” Ku tells me when we speak over the phone the week before the film’s platform release. “I guess that was a hope – that we could touch people in some way that might actually change them.” The film picked up the International Critics Prize at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival so clearly it has an impact on those who see it.
One of the reasons BEAUTIFUL BOY stands out is because of Ku’s delicate yet direct screenplay, which he co-wrote with Michael Armbruster. Ku avoids many of the trappings one would expect to find in this story. Naturally, when Sheen and Bello, who play Kate and Bill, hear of what their son, Sammy (Kyle Gallner) has done, they wonder if they are to blame. These are smart characters though; they know it isn’t as simple as that. Naturally, they have to resolve the idea of their son as the monster the media makes him out to be, and who he partly is considering what he did, with the little boy they knew and loved. Ku allows this tense journey to be had personally and painfully on screen without resorting to cheap manipulation and laying blame on one or the other.
“When we set out to write this, we acknowledged really early on that often times there is no real explanation,” Ku explains, in a tone that is both soft and humble. “Sometimes I think it is even beyond verbalization why these things happen.” Ku’s point here is key to the film as much of the communication coming from Sheen and Bello is internal. The issues they are wrestling with are so consuming that they just stumble through their days as if nothing makes any sense any more. Ku’s execution of this point is quite deliberate. “We wanted very consciously to paint these parents as regular people, doing the best they can,” he says. “Their kid did this thing. Did they contribute to it? Maybe. But is it their fault? I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
As subtle as Ku’s direction is, it would be nothing without Sheen and Bello in the lead roles. The couple’s relationship was not on the most solid of ground before their illusions were shattered and so finding peace in each other is not always an option. The two actors shift back and forth between operating as individuals and as a unit almost imperceptibly. Ku, who held separate rehearsal time with each to help foster these feelings of separation, knows how fortunate he was to have found these two particular talents. “Luckily, they are both very deep, very thoughtful people who understand all the nuances and dynamics of relationships.”
Bill and Kate’s relationship being central, the delicate balance described above was crucial. Ku elaborates, “Why does it happen just at the time you’re reaching out to someone to connect, that person is pulling away? And just when they turn around to reach for you, you’re turning away. Why are we never synchronized in relationships?”
As hard as it is to follow these parents through their grieving process, Ku hopes the dark subject matter doesn’t keep audiences away from BEAUTIFUL BOY, even those who go to the movies just to escape. “When people tell me that after seeing the movie they went home and hugged their spouse or their kid, I feel like that is a great accomplishment, that its moved them in some way.” Ku concludes, “That is our goal, so if that’s entertainment, I hope so.”
That it is; it is just entertainment of a different kind.