It's a parent's worst nightmare. There's a shooting at your son's college. You're frantic that he is wounded or worse. Instead, the cops arrive at your door and announce that your beautiful boy is not the victim but the shooter, responsible for the deaths of 21 students.
Out of that premise, horrifically familiar from tragedies at Columbine and Virginia Tech, director Shawn Ku has crafted a film that will haunt you for a good long time. As Kate and Bill, the parents of the remote boy they just phoned the night before to plan a family vacation, Maria Bello and Michael Sheen give performances that rip at your insides. Ku and co-writer Michael Armbruster aren't trying to make a documentary or build a psychological case study on what makes a child kill. We briefly see the son, Sammy (an indelibly lost Kyle Gallner), feeling ignored in his freshman writing class and later phoning home where his parents can't really intuit his cry for help. Later, we see videos Sammy left behind, raging at a world he claims has "ravaged his heart." Ku doesn't try to explain Sammy. Instead, he puts us inside the heads of Kate and Bill who must cope with the unthinkable. Are they to blame for their son's actions? And, if not, where can they put their rage? Isolated by the media crush at their door, this couple — already on the verge of divorce — realize they have no one but each other. Will it be peace or war?
Nothing about Beautiful Boy would have hit this hard without two great actors to shoulder its pain. That it gets. Sheen is superb, revealing a defeated man who has always preferred to deal with emotions by shutting them down. But his son's tragedy is a punch he can't roll with. As Kate, Bello never makes a false move. An intuitive actress of unerring instincts (see her in A History of Violence), Bello has the range to make every nuance felt. Her scenes with Sheen in a shabby motel, where Kate and Bill have gone to hide, exude a shattering intimacy. Bello's blazing performance will burn in your memory. Same goes for the film.