The opening scene of Beautiful Boy shows freelance journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell) sitting in a San Francisco doctor’s office, asking questions. That’s what he does when wants to get to the bottom of something, and his son Nic’s (Timothée Chalamet) increasingly worsening meth addiction falls squarely within that knowledge gap. “What is this doing to him, and what can I do to help him?” he asks, echoing the themes that then play out throughout the film.
The answers he gets are disheartening: Crystal meth alters the chemistry of the brain so quickly and thoroughly that it only takes a couple of uses to get addicted; and once hooked, it’s nearly impossible to stop.
Addiction movies are inherently frustrating to watch, in large part because the cycle of addiction and rehab is full of setbacks — every step forward means two steps back. Relapse is part of the process, and that doesn’t make for satisfying narrative arcs. Beautiful Boy is no exception. Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen’s English language debut, based on the best-selling memoirs by real-life father-son duo David and Nic Sheff, is an heartbreaking depiction of Nic’s spiral into crystal-meth addiction, as his dad repeatedly tries to save him.
Accuracy is great in theory, but the film would be far more emotionally gutting had Van Groeningen and co-writer Luke Davies taken greater liberties with the story. The vast majority of the film is told from David’s perspective: his quest to understand what meth does to the brain, his repeated meetings with Nic in which he tries to talk him into getting help, his earnest belief that this time will be the time his son turns it all around. Nic himself flits in and out of the story, and only rarely do we exclusively follow his thread as he fights to pull himself out from the vicious cycle.
It’s an understandable narrative choice — countless movies have already successfully focused around the addict, from Trainspotting to Rachel Getting Married — often omitting the destruction they leave in their wake. Framing the action from the point of view of a relative or loved one taps into a different emotional well. But the risk is that addiction viewed from the outside can become a somewhat mundane series of expectations that repeatedly get dashed as the person you love disappoints over, and over again. And while that makes for an technically correct and honest film, in this case, the action lacks the horrific voyeurism that gives addiction movies their twisted pull.
Still, Beautiful Boy isn’t without its share of anguish. Watching a child walk headfirst into self-destruction, knowing that you lack the power to stop them, is every parent’s worst nightmare, and the film very successfully portrays that inner pain and self-doubt, the constant nagging questions of ‘Who is this person that I thought I knew everything about?’ and ‘What did I do wrong?’ The audience lives those queries too, through a series of flashbacks to Nic’s childhood. It’s difficult to reconcile the happy, thriving boy, and eventually, the adequately surly teen with a penchant for Bukowski, with the zombie-like young man who steals $7 from his little brother’s piggy bank to score.
No one is safe from Nic’s destruction. David’s second wife Karen (Maura Tierney) is increasingly concerned for the well-being of their other children, who have trouble understanding why their brother sometimes shows up in a nearly manic state, begging for money. The high-school friend Nic happens to run into while out one night ends up OD-ing in a car while he desperately tries to give her CPR only a couple of months later. And his mother, Vicki (Amy Ryan, who reunites with Carell, her onscreen beau from The Office) is at a loss at what to do next. How much money should she spend on rehab for a son who is clearly not getting better?
The film is carried into Oscar-worthy territory by Chalamet and Carell’s utterly transfixing performances. The latter is clearly gunning for peer-recognition as a serious actor who is more than just Michael Scott, and though he’s delivered strong proof to that effect in the past (Last Flag Flying, Foxcatcher, Little Miss Sunshine), this is the role that could finally earn him a statue from the Academy. He’s devastating as David, joining Michael Stuhlbarg in the ranks of Good Dads who parent Timothée Chalamet characters.
As Nic, Chalamet proves that he’s no two-hit wonder, fresh off last year’s frenzy around Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird. Much of Nic’s torment plays out on his face, framed by the actor’s angelic curls that give him the appearance of a Baudelairien victim — a truly beautiful boy, in existential and physical pain. (Nic’s appearance and social status make him an appealing victim, and it’s worth wondering whether we’d have the same reaction or sympathy towards a less privileged, less attractive boy going through something similar. Would he get as many chances?)
Van Groeningen’s cinematography plays up the contrasts between the natural, sunlit beauty of Nic and David’s California surroundings, and the cold, hard, impersonal linoleum floors that Nic so often finds himself resting against, passed out after a hit. One of the loveliest scenes in the film shows Nic, in a brief period of sobriety, driving through fields, the mild sun hitting his face as he sticks it out the window and just lets his perfect hair waft in the breeze. It’s a rare moment of peace and beauty, and only reinforces the helpless frustration of watching him throw it all away again. (The subtle visuals are in opposition with the soundtrack, which feels a little on the nose at times. I actually cringed when “Sunrise Sunset,” from Fiddler On The Roof, played over one of David’s flashback memories.)
Overall, Beautiful Boy crescendos when Nic and David interact. It’s a story about addiction, yes, but also about learning to let go of your children, for better or for worse. It's not exactly an enjoyable film to watch, but perhaps it shouldn't be.
Beautiful Boy hits UK cinemas in January 2019.