Two great turns that go nowhere
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 17, 2011
Maria Bello and Michael Sheen deliver two powerhouses of performances in “Beautiful Boy,” an excruciating drama about a couple caught in the aftermath of a pivotal moment involving their college-age son.
The film begins with a home video of their family on a beach vacation several years earlier, an idyllic scene that gives way to the present day when college freshman Sam (Kyle Gallner) reads a melancholy story about a beach aloud in class. Miles away, his mother, Kate (Bello), goes about her daily routine as a copy editor, meeting a young author and tending the family’s well-appointed suburban home. Dad Bill (Sheen) expends most of his emotional energy at work, returning home to eat dinner alone, with Kate in the other room, an estrangement that extends to the couple’s sleeping arrangement.
Kate and Bill’s emotional distance is at once exacerbated and made utterly irrelevant when they receive shattering news from Sam’s college campus, and they’re catapulted into a surreal world of unfathomable grief, media frenzy and psychic dislocation. “Beautiful Boy,” which was co-written by Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku (who also directed), never leaves Bill and Kate’s side as they find refuge first with Kate’s brother and his family (an episode that provides a few moments of welcome comic relief from the film’s unrelentingly grim tone), then in a seedy motel, where the couple’s careful avoidance of each other explodes with pent-up fury.
As accomplished as Bello and Sheen are in underplaying their characters’ extreme emotions, “Beautiful Boy” begins to feel less like a taut character study and more like a maudlin melodrama. Its weaknesses are only heightened by inevitable comparisons with recent, much better movies that touched on the similar themes, especially last year’s “Blue Valentine” and “Rabbit Hole.” The latter film, also about a grieving couple, somehow infused the inertia of grief with dynamism and unpredictability. Here, Bill and Kate’s guilt, recrimination and denial feel more rote and, frankly, unedifying. (A story line involving Kate’s neighbor, the mother of one of Sam’s fellow students, feels needlessly thin and perfunctory.) There’s a fine line between catharsis and a melodramatic wallow, and ultimately “Beautiful Boy” falls on the wrong side of it.
Contains some profanity and a scene of sexuality.