"Beautiful Boy" uses a Columbine-type shooting incident as a starting point to examine a marriage in crisis - an idea that's not as tactless as it sounds.
That's thanks to the two leads - Maria Bello and Michael Sheen in a two-hander that has them sustaining a high level of emotional intensity, and making something halfway human out of a loaded (sorry) drama.
Bello is book-editor Kate, Sheen is businessman Bill, already on the verge of a breakup when their moody son goes off to college. Kate wants to take a unifying family vacation, Bill wants to take a break, and is already looking for an apartment.
Then the phone rings and they absorb the awful news that their son has gone on a killing rampage, making himself the final victim. They flee their house, knowing the media will want to badger them for answers, but the questions trail after them.
Were there signs?
Should we have known?
Could we have done something?
Sheen takes a leave from his job, and instead of a new life in a new place, fate now places him closer to his wife than ever as they engage in mutual soul-searching.
Sheen and Bello do tough work here, giving us naturalistic portraits of extreme distress while managing to carve out moments of tenderness and even humor.
And yet "Beautiful Boy" still manages to overstay its welcome. Director Shawn Ku photographs almost everything in intrusive close-up, with a shaky hand-held camera - an increasingly hackneyed way of conveying documentary-style reality.
He rarely varies the presentation and tone, and keeps "Beautiful Boy" at too high a pitch for too long. It engages you for a while, then wears you out.
There are incidental threads and relationships - Kate and Bill clash with relatives (Moon Bloodgood, Adam Tudyk) while in temporary living arrangements - but even these scenes have all the actors on high rev in workshop style.
Ku fares much better when he dares to add a little narrative, even a transparent one, as he does when one of Kate's writer clients takes an apparent interest in her.
Otherwise Ku is trying to condense two years of grieving into two weeks, and asking the actors to carry an impossibly heavy emotional load.