Yesterday, I watched this 2010 movie, a film so quietly brutal and ferociously tender in its portrayal of a couple launched into turmoil that it still stuns me, twenty-four hours later.
If you have no children, no link to children, this movie may not make sense. It may call from you dismissive, even arrogant, reactions. But if you’re a parent, especially if your children are adolescents or grown (and you remember their adolescence), you’ll feel all the pulls and punches this film slaps at you.
All the more because the two leads are powerful. Maria Bello, an actress I’ll watch in almost anything. Michael Sheen, an exceptional actor even when he’s not playing Tony Blair, and here using an American accent that by my count slipped only once.
When tragedy strikes a family, not only does it not move on little cat feet, it also takes no notice of the emotional temperature of parents. The parents may be together and happy, apart and happy, apart and sad, or, as here, losing the orbit of each other a little more every day. There’s a slippage. With that slippage comes a determined focus on it, then off it, then on it again, like a blinking light in the shadows. People lose focus on other things, inconsequential things like paying the power bill on time. They also lose focus on things of great moment, like the sound of a son’s voice and the words he’s not saying.
What did we miss? What could we have heard? Why didn’t he tell us? How could I have acted differently? Why did he do what he did?
And: how are we going to make it? Together or apart?
The research on grief in the past twenty years has been vast and welcome. Everyone grieves differently, we’re told. Give each other space. Be kind. Try not to add to the thousands of parents who break up after the death of a child. But when a child has brought the gift of pain to others, when you each feel responsible and want to run from accountability, when there’s enough blame and guilt floating in the air around you to fill a medieval dungeon, how can two parents make any progress at all?
Foundering, gasping to stay on top of the floodwaters, the couple here (Kate and Bill – their son is Sam) leave their house to paparazzi and stay first at the home of her brother and sister-in-law and their young son. A detail person (she’s a freelance copyeditor), Kate subsumes her breaking heart in an orgy of cooking, cleaning, and looking after the boy, even singing him to sleep. The song she chooses is her own son’s favorite, and the wonder is that she manages to even whisper it. Bill paces, drinks, and pounds tennis balls into a wall. Soon, they move on to a motel, and it’s here that the rubber-banding, the back-and-forth dance of a long-married couple begins to show its bones.
We understand the pain, the terror, the guilt. It could have been our child. At the same time, we wonder at their obtuseness, at the ignored clues, the sense of disconnectedness that infected every relationship: Bill and Kate, Sam and Bill, Sam and Kate. Could that happen to us? Maybe it’s only fate or God’s grace that has kept us from similar tragedy, from a “just checking in” casualness too sheer to catch hold of meaning. The line between “normal” and “mentally ill” seems more blurred and fuzzy than ever.
“Beautiful Boy” isn’t an easy movie, but it is, finally, about understanding. It’s about finding and making peace. It’s about nurture. Repairing what has shattered.
In classic Japanese decorative arts, when a plate shatters and is glued together, the repair is highlighted by a thin strip of gold paint. Nothing in life is perfect, says the shiny paint, not this plate, not your life nor mine. Accept it, celebrate it, and trudge on. Sorrow stretches out space in the heart, for joy.