Movie Review: “Beautiful Boy”

Written by Michael McNeely December 06, 2011

Lots of questions, but sadly no answers.

When I was a student teacher, we had a drill one day for what we would do if there was a school shooting. I remember sitting next to some of the students that I taught, back against the wall, like I was instructed, being close to the door so maybe I’d be the first one to get shot if there was an actual perpetrator. Some of the other students started laughing at how silly the whole thing seemed; us crouching on the floor hiding from some unseen and unknowable presence must have seemed quite silly, especially as kids in high school can think they’re invincible. Their parents know better, hopefully.

Beautiful Boy takes as its subject matter the grieving parents of a young man who shot thirteen of his classmates and three faculty members and then turned the gun onto himself. The parents are played by Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, and there is a good performance from Alan Tudyk of Firefly (and our recently reviewed Tucker and Dale vs. Evil) fame as Bello’s (Kate’s) brother, who tries to provide support to the parents.

I believe that this film should be credited with taking on an unique perspective: another set of victims, the parents of the perpetrator of a school shooting. Sure, there’s lots of movies about losing a son or daughter (try my favourites, The Greatest and Rabbit Hole, I seem to be drawn to these tearjerkers), but this is the first I’ve heard focus on the relatives of a mass murderer. They not only have to deal with the loss of their son (in fact, they wonder if he is one of the victims before they get the final word from the police), but they also have to deal with the fact that their son took down a lot of people with him.

One of the interesting issues this film deals with is how much media scrutiny is appropriate. The parents, Kate and Bill, discuss over the length of the movie, if they are to blame for their son’s actions, and often swing from thinking that they were great model parents to being the ones that gave him the gun and told him to shoot. However, the media is portrayed as sensationalizing the whole event – constantly replaying the gunman’s final broadcast to everyone over and over again (to the point where the gunman’s young cousin believes he’s a television star). At one point, Bill turns on the television to find a rant aimed at him – that people should investigate whether or not they have any other psycho children. This raises an interesting question: how much can parents be responsible for their children’s actions, especially when they go away to university (it was his first year at university).

I have been affected by numerous unnecessary deaths at Queen’s, caused by suicide and drunken pranks. There is something about going away on your own if you’re not ready for it or able to find the resources to succeed that can destroy you. The final conversation between the parents (dad for a short while, mom for most of it) and the son over the telephone is filled with lots of warning signs that the boy is a little unhinged, especially when he starts randomly talking about snowflakes being all the same in that they have six sides. However, I had the advantage of foresight, as the back of the box and other reviews helped me figure out what the boy was going to do. We can play the blame game, but what do we do after?

This is what I see as the film’s main drawback. I wanted answers, and sure, not getting answers, is in itself an answer I suppose, but in this climate of “It Gets Better” project and with raised concerns of mental health awareness, the movie is more alarmist than not – ultimately the movie’s answer is that the boy needed to learn to fend for himself, and because he didn’t, others, including himself, had to pay the price.

With movies like these, I have to ask how you can encapsulate the grieving process of losing a son in two hours. Sure, we get a few shots of them crying at separate times, almost as if they want to cry in secret; we get the arguments and some make-up sex and silliness; and we get them reunited again at the end, but still, they were reunited a hour before and they argued again, so who’s to say that they won’t scream and curse at each other some more?

I want some practical lessons, just a personal preference – but there is good acting throughout, and if the period of time spent mourning the loss of a son does not cheapen the mourning process, perhaps it can help others just realize life goes on, somehow.

 My Rating: 7/10

 

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