It’s the kind of nightmare most parents will never have to consider, much less endure: learning that their child was not only the victim of a campus shooting, but also the shooter.
Yet in “Beautiful Boy” — which earned the Discovery Award for first-time feature director Shawn Ku at last year’s Toronto Film Festival — that is the emotionally crippling reality for a couple whose son opens fire on his college classmates before turning the gun on himself.
Maria Bello, a two-time Golden Globe nominee and winner of the San Francisco Film Society’s 2008 Peter J. Owens Award for actors whose work exemplifies brilliance, independence and integrity, plays Kate, the angst-ridden mother who initially refuses to accept that her disaffected teenager was a killer.
Hers is a performance every bit as gut-wrenching as the movie itself, a tortured journey through the five stages of grief outlined in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ 1969 book “On Death and Dying,” which Bello read to prepare for the role.
But Bello, 44, was never cowed by the prospect of venturing into an emotional wasteland as grim as the one facing Kate and her estranged husband Bill (Michael Sheen).
Did the weight of the material take its toll on the actress, who was rarely permitted even to smile during her time on screen? Surprisingly, no.
Bello describes the shoot as a two-and-a-half week labor of love - “We basically worked for free,” she says — that afforded her the chance to act (and joke around off-camera) with Sheen, the award-winning star of “The Queen” (2006) and “Frost/Nixon” (2008).
Bello admits she could not have identified with her character’s agony nearly as thoroughly if she were not a mother herself, to 10-year-Jack, who recently celebrated his birthday in Haiti by getting the haircut of his choice — a bright orange mohawk.
She says parenthood has made her more compassionate, not only in dealing with her own child, but also in her appraisal of other parents.
Does she, like so many outside observers, instinctively find fault with couples, like Kate and Bill, whose children, seemingly left to their own devices, turn into murderers?
“A week before we started shooting, [Columbine killer’s mother] Susan Klebold came out with her first interview ever, in O Magazine,” says Bello. “The timing was eerie. She talked about how, with a sullen, angsty teenager, it’s easy to miss.
“Most teenagers I know are moody, they hate their parents and they deal with so many issues. How would you know the difference between that, which is fairly typical, and something more serious?”
IF YOU GO
Starring Maria Bello, Michael Sheen, Alan Tudyk, Moon Bloodgood, Austin Nichols, Kyle Gallner, Meat Loaf Aday
Written by Shawn Ku, Michael Armbruster
Directed by Shawn Ku
Running time 1 hour 40 minutes