The ugly truth of living with drug addiction is rarely depicted on screen. Sometimes it’s played for laughs, sometimes shock, sometimes tears. Writer/director Felix van Groeningen’s new film, Beautiful Boy, promised something different. Based on the memoirs of its two lead characters, the biopic was pitched as an unflinching insight into a family’s fight to save their 18 year-old son from crystal meth.
Whether it delivers is a matter of perspective.
Beautiful Boy‘s strength rests squarely within its performances. Timothée Chalamet plays Nic Sheff, a bright and kind student whose future is derailed as he starts using drugs to deal with his dislike for the so-called ‘real world’. In his first leading part since his Academy Award nominated role in Call me by Your Name, Chalamet once again proves himself a versatile and charming young actor. The softness with which he plays Nic during his sober periods makes it impossible not to feel for the character when his compulsions get the better of him, and make some heartrending scenes even harder to watch.
While the focus may be on Nic, it’s Steve Carell’s David Sheff – Nic’s father – that defines the heart of Beautiful Boy‘s most memorable moments. A caring man with high expectations and a propensity for placing blame on anyone for anything, we watch him desperately try to solve his son’s addiction, before slowly realising what little he can actually do. David has a strong relationship with Nic; when the latter casually mentions that it’s normal for kids to experiment with drugs, David doesn’t tell him to ‘just say no’, but to be careful. He respects his son, and whether he was right to or not lays the foundation for his guilt.
It’s a common question parents ask – have I done enough to protect my children? – and Carell is masterful in his portrayal of a father trying to give himself an honest answer. In one scene, the pair travel by plane to where Nic is set to start college, and are forced to sit apart. Mid-flight, Nic turns back and smiles at his Dad. All we can see of Carell are his eyes, but that’s all we need to see in order to understand David’s fear that Nic may relapse far from home, and not have his family there to care for him. It’s wonderful to watch.
Supporting performances by Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, and Andre Royo are also strong.
Outside of the performances, Beautiful Boy struggles. At only 112 minutes, the film still feels overlong, with some scenes in the second act bordering on melodramatic filler. Paired with an odd soundtrack – including one baffling track that would have been far better suited in an action-thriller – these moments feel not only unnecessary, but detract from the movie’s attempt to bring some honesty to its themes.
The editing has some problems too. The first half of the film is injected with flashbacks of Nic’s childhood that are clearly designed to charge the audience with some (unneeded) emotional investment in the characters. Most don’t fit where they’ve been put and, as a result, feel manipulative. Slight tweaking could have framed these flashbacks as David’s recollection of conversations that gave him a warning about Nic’s future, so it’s not quite clear why they are presented in the way they are.
Overall, Beautiful Boy doesn’t provide the hard look at drug addiction that it suggests it does, but it is nevertheless an emotional, moving experience thanks to the work of its lead performers. It’s likely that most viewers will come for them; they will not leave disappointed.
Beautiful Boy opens in Australian cinemas on October 25th.