Deep into Beautiful Boy, a powerful new drama about the aftermath of a Columbine-like school shooting, Michael Sheen, the despondent father of the college student responsible for the massacre, turns on a television and sees the fire-and-brimstone ranting of a Glenn Beck-like blowhard delivering an angry jeremiad insisting that the parents of the murdered children should seek vengeance on Sheen and his wife, played by Maria Bello. It’s jarring because the rant would be in prohibitively bad taste even for a professional bully like Beck, but also because it represents such a clear, potentially fatal, break from the tricky, delicate, grief-obsessed tone of the rest of the film, which exists almost entirely in the shadow of inconceivable tragedy. For better or worse, the film quickly recovers and maintains a tone of trembling, almost unbearably quiet intensity for the rest of its duration.
Bello, who seems to be choosing her roles these days based largely on how much emotional trauma her character will endure, stars as a seemingly normal wife and mother whose already-troubled marriage to Sheen is shaken by the news that their troubled 18-year-old son has gone on a shooting spree at his college. As Sheen and Bello avoid the press and try to make sense of what happened, they struggle to salvage a marriage that might have been beyond repair even before it received this potentially fatal blow.
Beautiful Boy finds Bello playing her specialty: A woman whose tough, brittle exterior masks deep vulnerability and sadness. Sheen is masterful in a less flashy but ultimately more difficult role: the tragedy of an ordinary, almost aggressively uninteresting man pushed by circumstances into a role for which he’s utterly unprepared. Like its fellow crowd-depressor Blue Valentine, Beautiful Boy offers the antithesis of escapism: a claustrophobic, punishingly intense, beautifully measured exploration of the depths of human despair.