Film Review: Beautiful Boy

Finely acted father-son drama about drug addiction and its impact on a family fails to transcend its disease-of-the-week subject
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The performances in Beautiful Boy are superb, and overall this intense father-son drama, helmed by Belgian directorFelix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown), has the ring of authenticity. It tells the story of a tormented dad, David (Steve Carell), dealing with his son Nic’s (Timothée Chalamet)addiction to crystal meth, an especially (lethally) addictive substance. “The drug turns my world from black-and-white to Technicolor,” Nic explains.

Still, like most movies dramatizing a social/medical "problem," Beautiful Boydoes not transcend its subject and has little, if any, resonance for those who are not personally affected by the disease. Unlike earlier iconic films on addiction—Days of Wine and Roses, The Lost Weekend, The Man With the Golden Arm and Trainspotting, among others—it’s not groundbreaking, eye-opening or even titillating. It feels repetitive and long.

Screenwriter Luke Davis had his work cut out for him culling the narratives of a pair of best-selling memoirs by San Francisco freelance magazine writer David Sheff and his oldest son, Nic. Each book documents its author’s—and, by extension, the whole family’s—descent into hell as Nic’s condition worsens and David endlessly, hopelessly attempts to rescue his son, consulting with experts, committing Nic to rehab, and even smoking dope with him in an effort to forge a bond. It’s an ongoing rollercoaster. Nic gets better, then he relapses. David is encouraged, then he despairs. The cycle is relentless.

In his late teens, Nic is the child of divorce. He lives with his father, artistic stepmom Karen (Maura Tierney) and younger half-siblings in the Bay area, spending his summers in Los Angeles with his sleek, corporate mom Vicki (the consistently fine Amy Ryan). Her relationship with David grows ever more acrimonious, each blaming the other for some real or imagined transgression that allegedly fostered Nic’s problem.

As a child Nic was a gifted painter, promising on every front. Recently he was accepted into six prestigious colleges. But meth is more fun, and for reasons that elude everyone, it’s all gone south.

Moving backward and forward in time, the film largely centers on David’s journey as he desperately tries to understand what role he played in his son’s addiction. He is awash in guilt, despite the wonderful times he and Nic shared—memories of their surfing together are lovely—and he cannot fathom that perhaps he’s blame-free and there’s nothing he can do for his son.

Simple explanations for drug addiction are not offered. There are no heroes or villains here, though Karen is almost saint-like in her forbearance and Vicki a tad too brittle and efficient. But the acting cannot be faulted, and the two leads are flawless. It’s the directing that’s the problem.

Maintaining a composed and rational surface, Carell’s Dave is disintegrating inside, a terrified and haunted man fighting a losing battle, while Chalamet, a study in self-degradation, registers agitation, arrogance and total self-absorption. Chalamet’s talents have served him well in his brief career to date, whether he’s playing the creepy boyfriend in Lady Bird or a gentle, vulnerable young lover discovering his sexuality in Call Me By Your Name. He’s an actor to watch.

Several scenes stand out: Nic’s attempt to con his father out of some money; David and Karen realizing Nic has stolen eight dollars from his half-brother’s piggy bank; Nic preparing for a fix and unable to find a clean spot on his arm in which to inject himself. The latter moment is particularly disturbing.

This film is, surprisingly enough, too focused. Every aspect of the film—dialogue, imagery, music—deals directly with or hints at Nic’s addiction and its effect on others. Nic says he can’t or won’t help himself. David learns that “relapse is part of recovery.” We see him flipping through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, a novel about a tumultuous relationship further marred by alcoholism (just in case we didn’t get what it’s all about). The musical backdrop throughout is heavy-handed and obvious, not leastPerry Como singing “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof.

In the end we’re told that Nic has been sober for eight years, though it’s clear he can turn on a dime. If there’s anything uplifting here, it’s that David now understands he can’t save anyone. The film has an instructional element, perhaps providing useful knowledge to families grappling with an addicted loved one.