D: Felix van Groeningen / 120m
Cast: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Kaitlyn Dever, LisaGay Hamilton, Andre Royo, Christian Convery, Oakley Bull, Timothy Hutton
After his teenage son, Nic (Chalamet), goes missing for a couple of days, freelance writer David Sheff (Carell) discovers that Nic has a drug habit. David arranges treatment for Nic at a rehab clinic and the teenager makes significant progress, however it’s not long before he goes missing again and his habit becomes an addiction. With the support of his father, and his stepmother, Karen (Tierney), Nic makes a full recovery and goes off to college to focus on writing. Nic relapses, though, and soon he’s back to taking drugs, particularly crystal meth, while insisting that he has everything under control. When an overdose puts Nic in the hospital, David and his ex-wife, Nic’s mother, Vicki (Ryan), decide that he should live with her while he attends rehab sessions. Again, Nic makes significant progress, and is sober for over a year before anxieties about relapsing cause the very thing he’s afraid of to happen. Reconnecting with an old girlfriend, Lauren (Dever), Nic’s addiction spirals even further out of control, which leaves David with a tough decision to make: whether to continue trying to help his son, or admit that he can’t help him at all…
From the synopsis above, it’s easy to guess just how much Beautiful Boy is going to be a movie based around a succession of terrible lows and tantalising highs, and though it’s based on a true story, this is exactly how the movie plays out: Nic takes drugs, Nic gets better, Nic relapses, and so on. Unfortunately, while the quality of the central performances isn’t in doubt – Carell and Chalamet are superb – and van Groeningen’s direction ensures the viewer remains interested throughout, the repetitive nature of the material leads to an emotional distancing that becomes more pronounced as the movie progresses. Though the effects of Nic’s drug addiction clearly take their toll on him and everyone around him, once he’s relapsed the first time (and so early on), you know that it’s going to happen again, and again. The script – by van Groeningen and Luke Davies – does its best to offset this by focusing on David’s efforts to understand his son’s addiction, though strangely, it’s on a more physiological and intellectual level; when Nic explains how drugs make him feel, David doesn’t get it at all. So, while Nic experiences feelings and sensations that make drug addiction, to him, more desirable, David remains somewhat aloof. Even after he’s taken cocaine himself, David is unchanged, and any effect the drug may have had isn’t revealed.
With both father and son unable to connect anymore in a meaningful way, the movie seeks to remind its audience of the tragedy that’s occurring by resorting to flashbacks that show the bond David and Nic shared when he was much younger. These are placed at key points in the narrative and serve as leavening moments against the grim nature of Nic’s addiction. But these too lose their impact through over-use, and by the time Nic reaches rock bottom, the idea of one more poignant remembrance is one too many. But though the structure and the content of the movie hampers its effectiveness, it’s the performances that stand out. Carell has rarely been better, using David’s anger and shame at not being able to help his son, to paint a portrait of a man coming up against the hard fact of his own limitations. As Nic, Chalamet continues to impress, imbuing the character with a desperate, anguished fatalism that is heart-wrenching to watch. The father/son relationship is the heart of the movie, and van Groeningen pays close attention to it, letting it dominate the movie accordingly, while leaving Tierney and Ryan with little to do as a result. At least it doesn’t seek to be profound, or to provide any glib answers to the issues it explores, and that at least is something to be thankful for.
Rating: 7/10 – adapted from books written by both David and Nic, and which allow for a powerful yet emotionally subdued movie, Beautiful Boy is bolstered by two stand out performances, and its refusal to compromise on the dispiriting nature of its storyline; while it doesn’t work as well as it should, and it might not be everyone’s idea of a “good time”, there’s still more than enough on offer to keep the average, or even casual viewer hoping that, by the movie’s end, Nic finds some semblance of peace.