Beautiful Boy doesn’t pull any punches.
Right out the gate, the film wants you to know how horrifying drug addiction can get, the toll it takes on the addict, their family members, even random people on the street. With opioids wreaking havoc on families across America, this unrelenting approach, the refusal to soften the blows, is certainly understandable, even appreciated. And yet, this achingly intimate exploration of drug abuse can feel quite detached.
Adapted from the memoir of the same name, Beautiful Boy recounts David Sheff’s (Steve Carell) struggles to help his son Nicholas (Timothée Chalamet) fight his addiction to a host of drugs. The film opens with David consulting a specialist to better understand how crystal meth is destroying Nic’s body and mind. It then backtracks to one year earlier; Nic is missing and David is searching emergency rooms for him. Nic turns up soon after, but it’s clear that his absence was the result of a drug bender. The first rehab stint commences, as does a vicious cycle of denial, ignorance, frustration and pain that leaves everyone around the 18-year old wrecked: David, his stepmom Karen (Maura Tierney), his mother Vicki (Amy Ryan) and even his two younger half-siblings. Every time it seems like Nic has reached a transformative rock bottom, he somehow digs even deeper. David meanwhile is left reeling as he tries to figure out, through several flashbacks to his son’s youth, where he went wrong.
Director Felix Van Groeningen takes great pains to explore David’s frantic, agonizing journey to save his firstborn. He is relentless in capturing the ebbs and flows of fragile sobriety, keeping us achingly close to every painful, repetitive stage, almost to the point of exhaustion. It is brutal, but honest in a way that other films can shy from. The downside to such intense attention to the mechanics of addiction is that the emotionality that should drive a film like this can feel, well, mechanical. For all the effort paid to convey the damage that drugs can do to a family, Beautiful Boy doesn’t establish the strongest of connections to its own. Sometimes, the Sheffs feel like vessels for therapist and pathologist notes on addiction, instead of fully formed characters with motivations and interiors that could shed some light on how this all started. The marquee relationship between Nicholas and David feels underdeveloped: we understand they love each other, and are incapable of supporting one another, but their relationship apart from the addiction is a mystery. There is no insight into what factored into Nicholas’s addiction, and whether their father-son dynamic was as close as David insists. The flashbacks should provide answers, but the context they offer amounts to whispers in a film that favors heightened volume. Ironically, it is the quieter moments that are the most effective, providing emotional stakes that are shattering. There aren’t enough of these scenes, and the film is lesser because of it. The narrative structure doesn’t help: the liberties taken with the film’s flow may mimic the choppiness of an addicted life, but it contributes to the story’s unfocused feel and robs the characters of some fullness.
It’s a shame, because Beautiful Boy has some beautiful performances. Steve Carell is excellent depicting a father at the end of his tether. He tracks the wear and tear of Nicholas’ addiction on David with stunning clarity, especially in those quiet moments where the naked defeat and resignation on his face is devastating. The louder moments are reduced in strength and veer dangerously close to histrionic, but Carell pulls back enough to hone in on David’s devastation and unhinged desperation. Timothée Chalamet, Oscar-worthy in Call Me By Your Name, continues his march towards acting nirvana with another stellar performance as Nic. The script doesn’t give him (or anyone else, really) much, but he captures perfectly the mania of drug addiction while maintaining an undercurrent of crippling shame throughout, even at his most manipulative and frustrating. Chalamet and Carell certainly feel like family, however strained, and their scenes together, especially the diner scene teased in the trailer, are the film’s best. As David’s second wife Karen – trying to support Nic while protecting her two children from his addiction, Maura Tierney is a grounding presence, whose own moment of pained frustration is unexpected and very powerful.
Beautiful Boy does a great job servicing the ravages of drug addiction. Few movies dare to go as far as this film does to capture the ugliest complications of drug abuse. It is a painful, difficult watch, but the film’s inability to fully engage on an emotional level with its characters and the root causes of this particular addiction also makes it a slightly hollow one. Despite the Herculean efforts of Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy is frazzled, unfocused and emotionally unsatisfying, much like its subject matter.