Release: Friday, October 12, 2018 (limited)
Written by: Luke Davies; Felix van Groeningen
Directed by: Felix van Groeningen
I think it is important to note how specific an experience Beautiful Boy describes. Closing titles reveal some alarming statistics about the pervasiveness of drug abuse in America but the film does not presume to speak for everyone. This is about how a drug addiction impacted the Sheffs, a stable, well-to-do, tight-knit Californian family. In particular this is what was true for a father and his son — the latter held hostage for years to a chronic methamphetamine addiction. Adapted from a pair of memoirs written by David (played by Steve Carell) and Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet), Beautiful Boy is an exceptional story of survival and a testament to the power of unconditional love.
In his first English language film Belgian director Felix van Groeningen is fully committed to a realistic portrayal of the physical and psychological tolls associated with crystal meth use. His direction is pragmatic and sympathetic, albeit beholden to what his subjects were willing to share in their written accounts. Given some of the scenes you have to sit through, you don’t really get the impression they hold much back. The shape of the narrative assumes the cyclical pattern of addiction, relapse and recovery, Groeningen taking scissors to a scrapbook and rearranging moments non-chronologically to create a sense of disorientation and of prolonged struggle. Ultimately there is less emphasis on providing a catalyst. Beautiful Boy is driven largely by mood, evident in its almost anachronistic (and borderline over-reliance upon) song placement in certain moments. It appeals to the pathos rather than trying to be some philosophical treatise on why people do crystal meth.
Beautiful Boy is an extraordinarily well-acted relationship drama. Indeed Groeningen is fortunate to have been gifted the talents of 22-year-old Timothée Chalamet, who dives in deep here to become Nic (reportedly losing 20+ pounds for the role) as well as those of Steve Carell, who, in another impressively grounded performance, I couldn’t help but find deeply sympathetic. It is his David who we meet first, seeking a consult with an expert off-screen as he suspects Nic has been using. His son has been conspicuously absent from the house for several days. When he finally returns, David wants him to attend rehab. Nic agrees to go. Progress is soon made and it seems the problem is resolving itself. At least until the restrictions are gradually dropped and Nic transfers to a halfway house where supervision is less strict and patients can come and go as they please.
And so begins our journey down a dark and dangerous corridor where the slippery slope of recreational drug use finally gives way to a more obsessive fixation with a particular high — in this case, the mind-warping, life-in-technicolor, loose-lipped euphoria of crystal meth. Chalamet is unflinching in his physical portrayal. But the performance goes to a whole other psychic level when it comes to conveying what the drug is doing to his brain. Speaking in generalities here, his behavior becomes more erratic and more unpleasant. He turns against his own family, owning up to nothing while asking for more money to “go to New York” or “to go see mom” (Amy Ryan as David’s ex-wife Vicki) — all of which is code for “gimme my shit.”
Carell is also brilliant, though he is at his best when sharing scenes with his young co-star. His role is far more reactive, not necessarily secondary but reliant upon an exchange with some other character to really carry weight. Carell depicts a parent utterly lost and without a road map. Because this is as much his story as it is Nic’s, he has a few of his own stand-out moments, like the time he snorts coke off his home office desk to try and “get” what it is that Nic seems to find in drugs. Meanwhile, as David’s new wife Karen, Maura Tierney impresses. Even while understanding the precariousness of the situation she is at her most firm and resolute when push comes to shove, her strength suggesting things might have gone another way had she not been there.
While the indiscriminate brutality of addiction is a big part of the experience, Beautiful Boy isn’t entirely downbeat. In sharing their personal stories, David and Nic aim to provide others hope. For the Sheffs it was the will to never give up or give in that gave them hope. That resolve is what makes Beautiful Boy worthwhile enduring.
Recommendation: A very difficult film to watch due to its committed, deeply human performances. Drug abuse is portrayed in a brutally honest way, but maybe this helps: at least this isn’t as overtly graphic as Requiem for a Dream.
Running Time: 120 mins.
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