Kate and Bill (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen) are a couple whose marriage is running on fumes. They've been together twenty-odd years and have a son, Sammy (Kyle Gallner), at college. They have separate lives and sleep in separate bedrooms.
Bill is so over the marriage that he's apartment hunting. Even so, Kate plans a family vacation engineered to save the marriage and to cheer up Sammy, who sounds down on the phone.
Then comes the news that a shooter at Sammy's campus has killed 21 students and himself. Bill and Kate wait anxiously for news that Sammy is OK. Then the doorbell rings. The police tell them that Sammy was the shooter.
Inspired by the incident at Virginia Tech, Shawn Ku's Beautiful Boy is a quiet film with exceptional performances by Bello and Sheen as parents who at first blame themselves, then each other, and finally their marital dynamic for the tragedy.
Where most filmmakers would explore the psychology of the shooter, Ku is interested in how the shooter's parents navigate the media and each other, all while processing their own grief. It's counterintuitive. There's an elephant in the room, and Ku is focused on the people looking at the pachyderm?
Still. Using a handheld camera to underscore Bill and Kate's nervous systems, their rage, their emotional exhaustion, and their psychological journey, Ku nicely frames Bello and Sheen's terrific performances.
Beautiful Boy is not an entertainment but an experience. And a kind of cinematic sensitivity training. The parents of killers have feelings, too. In performances that dare to be unsympathetic, Bello and Sheen earn audience sympathy.