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Originally published Thursday, June 16, 2011 at 3:03 PM

Movie review

'Beautiful Boy': Imagining the unimaginable after a campus massacre

A movie review of "Beautiful Boy," a bleak portrait of grief experienced by the parents of a college freshman (Kyle Gallner) who commits a Virginia Tech-like campus massacre. Michael Sheen and Maria Bello give marvelous performances.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

'Beautiful Boy,' with Maria Bello, Michael Sheen, Kyle Gallner. Directed by Shawn Ku, from a screenplay by Ku and Michael Armbruster. 101 minutes. Rated R for some language and a scene of sexuality. Metro.

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The deceptively titled "Beautiful Boy" is anchored by marvelous performances from Michael Sheen and Maria Bello as parents of a withdrawn college freshman (Kyle Gallner), whose unknown inner chaos erupts into mass murder and suicide on his unnamed campus. Clearly inspired by the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, director and co-writer Shawn Ku tries to imagine the unimaginable shock that terrorizes the family left behind.

Most of "Beautiful Boy" is unrelentingly bleak and depressing, but there are smatterings of understatement and grace. Those flashes of light are almost entirely thanks to the skill and passion brought to grueling scenes between Sheen and Bello as a couple whose marriage is already in steep decline (he's made plans to move out even before tragedy strikes). Especially heartbreaking is a sequence that unfolds in a cheap motel where they have fled to in order to partially keep the crushing truth at bay.

Events and emotions conspire to direct their anguish toward a resolution that recognizes some questions as unanswerable. Yet the suggestion lingers that there may be a kind of deliverance in such affecting despondency.

A rigorous formal style that includes a pallid palette doesn't always help its cause. Though it does suggest paralyzing claustrophobia, the insistent, shaky handheld camera and ultratight close-ups are often distracting. Sometimes locking down a camera on a tripod is just fine.

Ted Fry:

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