Dear Beautiful Boy,
You are a movie that does so much right, and has so much to say that is worth hearing, that I am able to overlook the stylistic and pacing issues that might have otherwise diminished my enjoyment of you. On a story level you are brave, on a human level you are harrowing, so your technical deficiencies fade by comparison. Your acting, narrative and writing are so great that they literally overpower all of your negative aspects, leaving you as an emotionally wrenching and worthwhile experience.
You begin with inauspicious familiarity. A home video of a family’s trip to the beach plays. A father and mother run happily with their young son, Sam. At the same time, the voice of Sam, grown and in college now, reads a short story obviously inspired by the scene. From there we see him, dissatisfied with academic life, as well as his parents, Kate and Bill, who are likewise struggling with their disillusionment regarding married life. These scenes accomplish a large amount of nonverbal exposition through the deployment of cliche and strong physical performances from the three leads.
In this case cliche isn’t such a bad thing, mainly because it allows an economy of storytelling that shuttles us to the main thrust of the plot more quickly. As soon as we have become acquainted with the cold mechanics of Kate and Bill’s marriage the torpor is shaken by a sudden and unthinkable tragedy. Sam, it seems, has just shot and killed 17 of his classmates before turning the gun on himself. The impact that this news has is immediate and devestating, taking their already strained relationship and working it to the breaking point.
However, the breaking point never comes. The nature of the tragedy coupled with the public outrage and media attention never allows for the wounds to be addressed, let alone healed. The couple have to abandon their house and move in with Kate’s brother and sister-in-law, watching in horror as their personal pain is writ large and spread freely. Their emotions are forced by the media and by other people’s personal expectations to fit a mold, to conform to a universal idea of what should be done. They issue a statement, respond to obvious questions with obvious answers, and reflect backward on the tragedy, looking for genesis rather than catharsis.
There are shocking and bold emotional truths to be had during the course of your narrative. The most unsettling of these is also the most important and yet rarely discussed in film: we will never truly know the people in our lives. Our desire to know the reason and logic behind every action, every decision, our inability to let go of the easy answers and accept simple emotional truths on faith, will eventually destroy us. The gaps between people are insurmountable, and yet the anger and impotence that this distance engenders in those who refuse to take the leap of faith required to accept this truth only makes them worse.
This is true between a husband and wife who still love one another but cannot remember why they need one another, just as it is true between parents and a son who does a terrible, seemingly meaningless thing. The worry and fear that infects them is more potent because they need a reason to believe there was a reason, and they each bring their own insecurities to bear on the situation, fearing their own culpability. Sometimes you are not to blame, sometimes the actions and feelings of those you love is out of your control – but this fact is so existentially frightening that we create terrible narratives to allow ourselves some agency over the random.
All of this is made more potently affecting by the acting of your two leads, Maria Bello and Michael Sheen each have centerpiece scenes of starling intensity and raw emotion, and yet they never come off as showy. They remain grounded and put on brave faces for so long that the ferocity and depth of their eventual outbursts is expected and cathartic for both them and the audience. One scene in particular, when they have finally sequestered themselves against the world and allowed their long stymied emotions to solidify and live and clash stands out as a moment of honesty and artistic integrity on the part of the actors.
Though, as I said, there are some drawn backs. Your camerawork is of the class of most independent films going for an aesthetic of realism – shaky, obviously handheld. You make liberal use of doorjambs and couch backs to form visual frames. Likewise, your editing and pacing drag from time to time. You have a vaguely episodic nature which makes sense from a psychological standpoint – as does the stasis of some scenes and segments – but there is an X-factor to editing that usually will allow for the narrative to portray stagnation without the story itself feeling mired. You lack this, but the emotional heft of the action and the artistry of Bello and Sheen carry us onward to your understated, painful and harrowing conclusion.
Film is a visual medium first and foremost, and in this respect you are serviceable, perfectly workmanlike. You contain actors of such talents and moments of such pure intangible truth and honesty that I wish you’d take more care with your presentation. But my dissatisfaction with your visual aspects is exaggerated in response to the majesty and transcendental nature of your acting and writing.
With intense admiration,
Brian J. Roan