Beautiful Boy, 2018.
Directed by Felix Van Groeningen.
Starring Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Ryan, and Andre Royo.
Using the best-selling father and son memoirs of David (Steve Carell) and Nic Shiff (Timothée Chalamet), Beautiful Boy charts the traumatic experiences of a family dealing with a debilitating addiction that nobody really understands.
Drug culture in film is often used to perpetuate comedy, emphasise hedonism, or as currency for the subject of biopics. Some, such as The Basketball Diaries and Trainspotting, manage to convey the destructive nature of the addiction, but few have explored it as the insidious, incurable disease found at the heart of Felix Van Groeningen’s emotionally draining drama.
Usually these parables are set against a backdrop of dysfunctionality, but what strikes you immediately about the Shiff family is how ordinary they are. We’re presented with a young Nic (It star Jack Dylan Grazer), who rocks out with the his dad in the car, and hits the surf at the beach. The normalcy is unerring because you know what this innocence is going to be infiltrated by.
As he grows into Chalamet, and he begins to listen to melancholy music and keep himself locked away in his room, Carell naively offers up“It’ll pass. It always does. It’s an emotional piece of foreboding for a phase in Nic’s life that ultimately will never pass.
It also underlines one of the key points of Beautiful Boy; the lack of understanding. Not just of the disease, but how you can’t control it. 12 Steps isn’t always going to work. In that respect it’s an important movie because it’ll trigger discussion.
It’s made all the more heartbreaking by the fact that Carell and Chalamet share such an indelible, believable on-screen chemistry. They talk to each other, this is no surly teenager crossing the wrong side of the tracks narrative. There’s an honesty and helplessness which permeates the entire movie, for both of them, and they’re respectively brilliant in their roles.
The Call Me By Your Name star is utterly sympathetic as Nic, conveying superbly the way in which the shadow of this illness consumes a kid who, like his parents, you believe to be too smart to fall foul of drugs. It’s during his lowest ebb that Chalamet shines, with a couple of scenes of pleading desperation that might very well get your heart creaking in your chest.
Equally good is Carell, who goes through his own transformation, taking on the burden of fighting to understand what’s happing to his “beautiful boy”. The film makes a point of emphasising the nuclear fallout of drug addiction and how it touches everyone close to the user. It’s one of those performances of quiet suffering, which Carell has made his own every time he has stepped away from comedy.
With the focus firmly on the father-son relationship, the peripheral characters become a bit of a blur; Maura Tierney is given the most thankless role as Nic’s step-mother, on hand only to offer up the odd soundbite or concerned look. There’s also a thread with Kaitlyn Dever as Nic’s girlfriend and fellow user, which is harrowing, but never fully resolved.
This might be down to the montage heavy nature of the film, with Van Groeningen reliant on music and mood a little too much. At times it’s like The Tree of Life, but with more substance (pun intended), and as effective as the sequences are, with a playlist that’s already destined for repeat business, it can feel a bit mawkish in execution, and a little like flicking through a family photo album too fast.
That’s a minor insignificance when stacked up against the power of the performances, importance of message, and weight of the emotional impact caused by Beautiful Boy repeatedly kicking you right in the feels.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter @mainstreammatt