Maria Bello and Michael Sheen star in "Beautiful Boy." (Justina Mintz, Anchor Bay…)
Bracing for terrible news about their only child, the couple at the center of "Beautiful Boy" must endure an even worse truth: Not only has he died in a school shooting, but he was the shooter.
The focus of this well-observed, low-key drama isn't teen despair or media spectacle but the emotional fallout for the boy's parents, played with uncompromising intensity by Maria Bello and Michael Sheen. First-time feature director Shawn Ku avoids therapeutic bromides about closure as he ventures into an unmapped zone of grief.
It's territory worth exploring, and though not every aspect of the film works, its sharp eye for domestic intimacy and distance and spot-on performances by the entire cast are refreshingly unsentimental.
When the incomprehensible news about Sam (Kyle Gallner) arrives, Kate and Bill's marriage is already hanging by a thread, as evidenced by their too-big house and its loaded silences. He'd like to keep fleeing her, but they're united — sort of — in devastation and loss.
They hide from the press and try to withstand idiotic TV commentaries and church sermons that apparently deem them ineligible for compassion. Kate's brother and his wife (Alan Tudyk and Moon Bloodgood) offer refuge, but their calm support gives way to umbrage at the intrusion of tragedy on their lives.
As conflicted and self-absorbed as any middle-aged people of their class, Kate and Bill find themselves adrift — a point taken to literal lengths when they end up on the road, with no particular destination except the inevitable emotional explosion, which feels more like an acting exercise than catharsis.
Meat Loaf Aday, as proprietor of the motel they check into, offers a steadying gaze, no small thing when you're unmoored.
The handheld camerawork and insistently drained visuals suit the material to a point but at times prove distracting and enervating. Ku and co-screenwriter Michael Armbruster veer into preciousness with the broody, wistful fable that bookends the story, told in voice-over by the title character.
Wisely, they make sure he remains a mystery to the audience and his parents alike.