Beautiful Boy is about as far as you can get from the “feel good movies” of summer. But to be fair, it’s hard to imagine a good time of year for this type of indie drama. It’s a bit reminiscent of last year’s Rabbit Hole (Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhardt) which came out during the winter holiday season (that seemed like bad timing too). Both movies revolve around married couples dealing with grief and confusion in the aftermath of losing their only child. Beautiful Boy, however, is darker and more complex.

Michael Sheen and Maria Bello deliver strong, poignant performances as a couple on the verge of separation whose lives are shattered when their son goes on a murderous rampage at his university and takes his own life. Together, they must face impossible questions about their parenting skills, missed signs, and how to reconcile their unconditional love for their child with his horrifying actions.

The fact that the parents are inherently decent people who thought they were doing okay by their son is likely to make you sympathize (at least somewhat) with the parents of the Columbine shooters and other kids who go off the rails with little or no explanation. The couple does not attempt to diminish the pain and loss their son has caused – but they, themselves, are given little room to grieve amid the media onslaught, awkward pity from family and friends, and vilification by others. They are left with only each other to turn to for support – which isn’t easy given the pre-existing cracks in the foundation of their relationship.

Maria Bello’s performance is more believable and nuanced to me than Nicole Kidman’s was in Rabbit Hole (a role for which Kidman got an Oscar nomination). And I’ve never seen Michael Sheen in such a raw and vulnerable role. Their ability to play normal and sympathetic as they struggle with grief, pain, rage, blame, self-discovery and ultimately hope is what makes the film work. But the subject matter makes it a tough sell amid the superheroes, comedies and superficial fluff of summer. If you’re looking for a deeper diversion, then you may want to seek this one out.

Beautiful Boy is rated R for language, sexuality, and adult themes. There is no on-screen graphic violence (the massacre is only alluded to in media coverage).

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