It’s clear from the early stages of “Beautiful Boy” that a dish will be thrown.
The school-shooting/domestic drama is a classic example of a dish thrower, the sort of movie where quiet but steady family tension eventually takes its punishing toll on the family tableware. Like ancient Greek actors, the dishes perform in the horror of not knowing if they will survive the shoot. If the props guys start shoveling innocent-looking cookies on top of you, you know your time has come.
Movie shorthand for inner turmoil, the thrown dish often inhabits the same space as a shrieking, hair-pulling husband-wife boilover. I have only so much tolerance for such scenes. They’re vestiges of deconstructing plays that wanted to puncture the happy ending in the name of reality. Frankly, their over-the-top-ness cracks me up. That said, “Beautiful Boy”owns a live one that operates in the realm of “In the Bedroom.” It grabbed my attention. After I stopped laughing for a second.
The tragedy gnawing at separating spouses Michael Sheen and Maria Bello is the college shooting rampage perpetrated by their son. Why the son goes bananas is a mystery. No one really ever knows why these things happen (that said, has anyone examined the mental effects of being followed by a treacly piano score? Or prolonged exposure to living in a world of washed-out cinematography? ) Regardless, the self-examination and the guilt are vexing, real, and an unavoidable part of every day.
“Beautiful Boy” has a lot to recommend it. It develops real characters. It treats them with generosity, and offers a rare portrayal of an amicable divorce, in which the spouses still care but are no longer in love. Unlike Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” and reportedly unlike Lynne Ramsey’s upcoming “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” it doesn’t aestheticize school violence. Debut director Shawn Ku seems more interested in a sensitive portrait of the minutia of suffering.
Michael Sheen is winning wide praise for his role as the father, a corporate careerist lost in some other world. He does a splendid job of entering and sustaining his character. Yet even his subtle scenes have the scent of an actor who’s looking for The Big Moment. He has the subtlety of someone saying, “Look at how subtle I can be.” I came away more impressed by the performance of Maria Bello. I do wonder, however, is it necessary for Bello and Amy Ryan to coordinate schedules and make sure someone is always on duty, in case an indie housewife role walks into the store?
There are two ways to take in “Beautiful Boy.” Part of me says, this is the sort of thoughtful and worthy filmmaking that the indie scene exists to promote and preserve. And part of me wants to check the listing for the next showing of “Bridesmaids.” It’s not my idea of a Friday night. But I respect it.