Grief has become a popular cultural subject, whether in Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir of her late husband or Meghan O’Rourke’s mourning of her mother. But Beautiful Boy adds an admittedly lurid, ripped-from-the-headlines dimension to this genre: Kate (Maria Bello) and Bill Carroll (Michael Sheen) mourn a son who’s committed a college shooting, killing himself and several of his classmates. Mercifully, though, this is not a low-rent teen-issue drama in the style of David Schwimmer’s Trust. With one notable third-act exception, none of the real drama transpires over computer screens or text messages. Kate and Bill learn about the shooting as we expect they might: from glimpsed snatches of local-news coverage, a police officer’s fateful knock on the front door. All of it takes place in the very early part of the film, when we’ve barely gotten to know the Carrolls’ son, Sam (Kyle Gallner), and the lack of firsthand information, for them and for us, leaves the proceedings feeling uniquely devoid of air.
This unmoored, oxygen-deprived atmosphere reflects the current mood of grief literature, inspired by Joan Didion’s groundbreaking The Year of Magical Thinking: That when our culture usually demands “closure” and a sense of “moving on” with one’s life, one actually experiences disorientation and a fixation on the past. Kate and Bill respond to these feelings by retreating away from reality, an understandable reaction when most of the country knows more details of your son’s death than you do. (In one admirably restrained scene, the Carrolls turn off a TV broadcasting their son’s pre-shooting murderous rants.) First they move into Kate’s brother’s house with his wife and young son, until they become alienated by the baggage they’ve brought with them (the son is bullied at Sunday school, and Kate overcompensates for her loss by taking on all the household duties). Once they’ve let themselves out the door, they realize they don’t have anywhere else to go except down a long stretch of sun-baked highway at dusk, a scene that recalls a similar one from Todd Haynes’s Safe, and the comparison seems apt: Like Julianne Moore’s hysterical housewife, they’ve been driven back into themselves.
The subversion is subtle, but Beautiful Boy breaches the normal expectations of a respectable family tragedy. There’s an oddly sumptuous quality to Shawn Ku’s aesthetic, full of gauzy close-ups and attention to surfaces, as when Kate tellingly checks her reflection in a kitchen window when an attractive younger writer comes over for dinner. For a movie about a teen shooting, it’s even, well, kind of hot. At the story’s turning point, after leaving her brother’s place, Kate and Bill end up at a nondescript motel, where Kate finds she’s unable to go out in public without breaking down. Bill makes a meal out of Funyuns, cheese dip, and a brown-bagged bottle of whiskey from a nearby liquor store. A drunken card game gives way to what might be the most surprisingly tender sex scene of the year, in which an emotionally estranged couple learns to fuck again in order to dull their mutual pain.
More importantly, Beautiful Boy doesn’t ask its characters to torture themselves (though they frequently do anyway) or get over it, and it doesn’t try to force an explanation for events that defy reasoning. This complex emotional texture no doubt owes a lot to Bello’s stunning performance, which works by screwing with the familiar conventions of reaction shots; she goes cold when we expect her to freak out and explodes when we expect her to be silent. There are some concessions to clunky narrative sequencing, as when Bill quits his job amid rampant office gossip, but this is a movie that mostly avoids the usual clichés and shifts the drama to a more personal, disquieting ground. Kate and Bill are too smart to blame themselves for what their son did, but they’re too traumatized to easily get on with their lives. As Kate bluntly says to her son’s grave, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, right? Not so much.” By film’s end, Bill is basically incapacitated, and Kate is forced to clean him up and drag him back to their family home, where he asks her to lie with him in bed. The point is not to fix what’s happened but to learn to live with it.