American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The death of a child is a calamity. When that child has gone on a killing rampage at his campus and then taken his own life, it must be a tragedy so fundamental that it paralyzes thought. “Beautiful Boy” gives us a glimpse of the young student on the night before his murders, and then is about how his parents live with what he has done.
No rational response seems possible. They cannot reason with madness. Their son fits all the cliches of sudden killers: He was quiet, shy, kept to himself, never caused trouble. In scenes before his death, we see that his home was an arid minefield. His parents were closed off from each other and on the edge of divorce. When he telephones them on his last night, their advice is “study hard.” His mother speaks with him longer than his father, but neither picks up what we see: The boy (Kyle Gallner) is on the edge of tears.
“Beautiful Boy” is a sincere attempt to imagine the aftermath of tragedy for the parents. Maria Bello and Michael Sheen play Kate and Bill, two people living in a daze. The news of their son's death is followed immediately by the news about his rampage. Ordinary grief is stunned senseless. Their home is immediately placed under siege by reporters and TV news crews demanding a statement. This is always the case. I always wonder what the reporters are hoping for. What can be said? When Bill finally reads out a statement of regret, it is perfunctory and useless.
Shawn Ku's film follows them. Bill tries to continue working at his office, but his co-workers stare and wonder. Kate is an editor and works on the manuscript of a new author. In her attention to minute details, she deadens herself. Driven from their home, they move in with her sister (Moon Bloodgood) and husband (Alan Tudyk). This can't last. Finally, they are alone in the world, checking into a motel where the night clerk (Meat Loaf Aday) becomes the first person in the film to treat them as if they were ordinary people.