When an emotionally charged tragedy such as the Columbine High School and the Virginia Tech University shootings occur, we as a society immediately begin to look for someone to take the blame. Like most people, I blamed the parents for failing to raise their children properly, whatever “properly” might mean. BEAUTIFUL BOY is a character study that offers a glimpse into the stages of hell that the parents of the killers undergo. The director, Shawn Ku, was inspired by his family’s personal connection to the Virginia Tech shooting (his parents met, married, and had his sister at Virginia Tech) and the unexpected death of a friend who was staying at the director’s house and died in his sleep. The story to a BEAUTIFUL BOY evolved from these two unrelated events. Does it work? As an acting showpiece, the film gives us two extraordinary performances from Michael Sheen and Maria Bello. However, despite the emotional weightiness of the subject matter, BEAUTIFUL BOY fails to otherwise bring any sort of tension, build-up, or climax. The film comes off as more of a procedural than a story and because of this, BEAUTIFUL BOY misses an opportunity to become a memorable experience that could quite possibly have been on the same level of a film like Robert Redford’s ORDINARY PEOPLE.

In BEAUTIFUL BOY, Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate (Maria Bello) are a suburban married couple whose marriage has long been on the rocks. Even though they live in the same house, Bill and Kate are practically strangers to one another. Each buries himself/herself into their work and they sleep in different beds. However, one day, the worst thing imaginable happens when they learn that not only has there been a shooting at the university their son attends, but that their son was the shooter and he is now dead. The tragedy forces the couple to confront each other and their emotions as they learn to process the tragedy and grieve and heal together.

BEAUTIFUL BOY was reportedly shot in 18 days for under $1 million. According to the director, it was decided that a documentary style (i.e. shaky handheld) would be used in shooting it. The director claims that his choice was inspired by such films as 21 GRAMS and UNITED 93. I suspect the truth behind the shooting style was motivated by the short schedule and tight budget. Regardless, the shaky cam style is by now an overused style that has worn out its novelty and welcome in non-documentary films. What’s more, here, it felt less like we were a fly on the wall in the lives of this couple or that we were being invited into the intimacies of their relationship. Instead, the shooting style distracted me from focusing on the story and performances. So much of the film is also shot in close-ups that I began to wonder if the shaky cam was employed to cover up any issues that the filmmakers were unable to resolve due to the low budget and short schedule.

Above all, this film is a character study of Bill and Kate. Fortunately, Shawn Ku was able to get two amazing actors to play these characters. The performances from Michael Sheen and Maria Bello capture your attention for the entire duration of the film and it’s a shame one or both of them were not nominated for an Academy Award. The great performances and character development are helped in no small part by the fact that director Shawn Ku is himself an actor who worked on several films before making his directorial debut in 2004 with PRETTY DEAD GIRL. Ku was able to not only shape his two main characters into living, breathing three-dimensional people, but he clearly understands the parameters and artistic liberties his actors require to fully blossom into their characters and display the full potential their characters have to offer. There is a scene in the film that is particularly powerful. In it, Bill and Kate are in a motel room and they have reached a breaking point in dealing with their dead son’s horrible actions. It is a culmination of everything that’s been happening to them up until that point. Everything gets said, including all the fears and accusations they have been holding back for so long.

One question I kept asking myself while watching BEAUTIFUL BOY was why tell a fictional story about the parents of these school shooters instead of simply making a documentary about the real parents? Shawn Ku opted to shoot his film in a documentary style so why not just take it to the next logical step and go find the real parents and make a documentary about them? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has wondered what ever happened in the lives of the parents of Dylan Klebold (whose birthday is on 9/11) and Eric Harris after the Columbine shootings. Shawn Ku was clearly careful in meticulously charting the various stages of shock and grief that the parents underwent in dealing with their son’s actions. Aside from a few implausible moments, most of what we see Bill and Kate go through is what I would imagine the real parents to have gone through. Despite this, however, I remained far more interested in the real parents’ stories and BEAUTIFUL BOY sort of struck me as the recreation scenes you see in news shows like 20/20. To be fair, Ku did not intend to show us what he thinks the real parents’ lives were like. Like any writer inspired by true life events, Ku was inspired by the Virginia Tech shooting to write his own screenplay that used a school shooting to shed light on a broken marriage.

However, the film’s biggest weakness is its failure to build toward an emotional climax. For all the emotional weightiness the premise of this story promises, never once do the raw, intense performances the actors imbue their characters with translate into a tear-filled and emotionally exhausting experience. I wanted to feel this and I should have felt this. The director seems to pull back anytime the story moves toward any emotional intensity. For example, shortly after the shooting, Bill and Kate temporarily move in with Kate’s brother’s family. There are a number of moments that hint at the discomfort Kate’s sister-in-law feels about them staying at her house and taking over her household. However, before the situation can explode, Bill and Kate nip the problem in the bud and move out. Furthermore, the couple never seems to confront the media assault on their lives and the life of their son. I wanted to see them deal with the media and the parents who lost their children. Instead, the film skirts around these tougher scenes and shows Bill and Kate pretty much operating unseen from the rest of society. As intense as the motel break-up scene is, BEAUTIFUL BOY misses giving us an emotional payoff. There is no build-up toward the end and the film ends just as it begins – on a meandering and aimless path that lacks any weightiness.

I don’t want to give short shrift to the outstanding performances that Bello and Sheen give. Unfortunately, however, their performances outshone a script that lacked the courage to take risks and paint itself on a much bigger canvas. The film is a procedural rather than an emotional drama and in that sense, it does not deserve the efforts put out by these actors. So if you’re going to see BEAUTIFU BOY, watch it for the performances. In fact, make a point to see BEAUTIFUL BOY for these performances because they really were among the best of 2011.