Bill Carroll (Michael Sheen) is just a guy who goes to work every day, and comes home wanting some peace and quiet. How many guys are there like that out there? He and his wife are civil enough, but they’ve obviously drifted apart. Their only child, a son, Sam (Kyle Gallner), is off at college. Kate (Maria Bello) works as a copy editor, and that kind of marketable perfectionism is actually a logical extension of her personality. She recycles, she plants flowers around her suburban home, which she keeps spotless. She maintains good eating habits, and keeps herself trim and fit. She easily discusses housekeeping matters with Bill, but their emotional distance is palpable. She thinks maybe they should take a vacation together. He thinks maybe he should just get an apartment, since he sleeps in the guest bedroom anyway. They’re not especially rancorous to each other, at least overtly. All the anger is safely bottled up, and, they think, hidden from everyone else.
Meanwhile, their son is trying to deal with his own rage issues, but he’s so used to not expressing them that he lets himself build up like a pressure cooker until he just explodes. One sunny morning in suburbia, Bill and Kate get the dreaded cops at the front door visit, the one that represents the parental nightmare of cosmic proportions. Not only was their son killed in the nearby campus rampage, he was the shooter. And after he killed several innocents, he blew his head off.
How can anyone possibly cope with such unspeakable emotional devastation? Sure, they go through all the classic stages of grief: they can’t believe it’s true, there must be some mistake, their son must have fallen under bad influences, it can’t possibly be their fault, can it? But why didn’t they have an inkling? How could they have not known this violent fire was smoldering? They search for answers, but find none.
At least, at church the following Sunday, the minister reads a passage about forgiveness, and the camera just focuses on Bill and Kate with bowed heads, tolerating the withering stares around them. At first, they are prisoners in their own home, because of the media assault, and then, when they retreat to the house of her brother and his wife, they find they can’t leave their sorrow at the door.
Yes, they are subject to sudden fits of sobbing, and crying jags can happen at any provocation. They try to bury their son quietly in a private ceremony, but visit the grave later to find the word “killer” spray-painted on the tombstone. Their son’s social network sites are filled with anonymous invective. Bill and Kate find themselves looking to each other for any kind of comfort, but they’ve almost forgotten how to be genuine to each other, and even their fits and starts are syncopated by recriminations and suspicions and their own tsunamis of self-loathing. But sometimes the one person in the world you need most to be there for you is also the one person who remembers the most reasons to resent you.
“Beautiful Boy” is an incredibly powerful stress test of one fragile relationship. And all of us who have ever loved deeply and lost profoundly will find points of contact, if we can stand the intensity of standing so close to the hellish inferno of soul-searing guilt.
Ronald P. Salfen is co-pastor of United Presbyterian Church, Greenville, Texas.