It's not surprising, given the maturing of the baby-boom generation, that there has been a steady trickle over the last few years of films about parents coping with the death of a child.
But Beautiful Boy takes it to another level. This film by Shawn Ku focuses on the tragedy of parents whose child is killed in a campus shooting (and how frightening is it that the phrase alone is enough to conjure an entire plot) - and then compounds it.
When we first see Bill and Katie Carroll, played with a mix of intensity and resignation by Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, they're in the first stages of dissolving their marriage. They aren't separated officially - but Bill sleeps in a separate bedroom and is cruising Internet sites looking at apartments.
Still, Katie is hoping that the powers of a family vacation will help them sort out their differences and somehow mend their relationship. But she isn't getting much input from Bill, or from Sammy (Kyle Gallner), their son, who calls from college but seems distant and remote during the conversation.
The next day they find out why. They watch TV in horror as new reports flood in about a campus shooting at Sammy's school. Katie's frantic calls to Sammy's phone go straight to voicemail - and her worst fears are realized when she answers her front door to find police officers bearing bad news.
But the news is even worse than Katie and Bill could imagine. Their son isn't just dead - he was the shooter in the killing rampage, slaying 17 people and shooting several others before turning the gun on himself.
What starts as a tragedy quickly turns into a nightmare. Once the police identify their son to the media, the Carroll house is besieged by camera crews. At first hiding out as hostages in their own home, afraid to even pick up the constantly ringing telephone, they eventually escape, moving in with Katie's brother Eric (Alan Tudyk), his wife Trish (Moon Bloodgood) and their young son. But even that is only temporary refuge, before they are out there on their own.
Ku's film retains its sharp focus on Bill and Katie: the horror of their situation and the way it isolates them, forcing them to rely on each other - in other words, the one person on whom they're no longer sure they can rely. Their relationship, none too stable, suddenly becomes the one thing they still have.
They both are consumed with painful, destructive feelings: rage, depression, sadness, fear, guilt. Each wonders what he or she did that might have contributed to their son's final act; each looks for a way to blame the other, to avoid blame himself. And both seek ways to escape those feelings, if only temporarily. But, of course, there is no escape.
Ku has made an almost unbearably painful movie: a character study of two people thrust into a pit of despair from which there is no escape. Not that time won't dull the ache - but how does one go on with life after something like that? Ku suggests that there is eventually some solace - but not before spending time in hell.
Which makes you wonder who will want to watch this film. Certainly it's a must-see for anyone wanting to watch two actors at the peak of their powers. Sheen has the tougher job, as a guy who is obviously tightly wound to begin with - and whose methodical nature can't build walls fast enough to hold off the feelings that wash over him in waves.
Bello is his match: empathetic, bereft, a mother bear whose cub has suddenly gone beyond the pale. When you take so much of the meaning from your life from parenthood, what happens when that portion of your life explodes?
Beautiful Boy is a tough sit - not because it's not well-made but because it is almost too accurate in its depiction of a family crisis that's hard to take.
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