Beautiful Boy

Drug addiction is a difficult subject to tackle on film, so hard is it to portray without devolving into a finger-wagging after-school special, or conversely, a hedonistic dive into debauchery and debasement. Even the best films made on the subject matter, such as Sid and Nancy and Requiem for a Dream, risked veering into both extremes at alternating moments. The same proves to be true for Beautiful Boy, both an affecting and uneven new drama from Felix Von Groeningan.

The film tells the story of David Sheff (Steve Carell) as he does his best to cope with his drug-addled son Nic (Timothee Chalamet). Before crystal meth and heroin came into the picture their lives were seemingly perfect, David being a high-paid writer and happily married family man while his son a successful student and artist with a bright future. Eventually the facade of happiness begins to slip away as Nic's experimentation quickly morphs into a serious addiction and dependency that David cannot possibly wrap his head around.

Both David and Nic are real people whose dual memoirs provide the true story behind Beautiful Boy's screenplay. Van Groeningen alternates between both their perspectives as the ugly cycle of addiction and relapse plays out multiple times over ("Relapse is part of recovery", a counselor tells David after one of Nic's many aborted attempts at rehabilitation.) Various flashbacks scattered throughout the film which show the father and son sharing happier times during Nic's childhood are contrasted with scenes depicting the emotionally exhausting realities of living as an addict and the terrible toll Nic's drug use causes his family.

While the scenes of melodrama depicted in Beautiful Boy can sometimes feel repetitive and familiar, as an acting showcase the film is a small gem. Chalamet follows up his outstanding work in Call Me By Your Name with another revelatory, Oscar-worthy performance in his portrayal of teenage angst, as Nic skirts between being emotionally needy and resentfully defensive. Steve Carrel also proves Chalamet's equal in their scenes together as he continues to exhibit exceptional range when tackling dramatic roles, effectively conveying the whilrwind of emotions Dave feels as he struggles to see the child he once knew in the young man he no longer recognizes. Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan also impress in supporting roles as Nic's stepmother and mother, respectfully, despite neither having a great deal of screentime.

So why then does Beautiful Boy leave one feeling less emotional cartharsis than muted relief in its final moments? Perhaps it has something to do with Von Groeningen and cinematographer Ruben Impens expert photography in many scenes feeling too clean in its splendor, never really placing viewers in the emotional vantage point of their subjects. Or maybe the picture would've improved had it been shorter, as its various (drug-induced-or-otherwise) hazy montages set to Sigur Rus and (of course) John Lennon prove less effective in the film's second half. Von Groeningen's most acclaimed previous feature, The Broken Circle Breakdown, was similarly blunt in its melodramatic handling of a family being tested by tragedy, but it was buoyed by more effective moments of human feeling than what viewers are left with in the final passages of Beautiful Boy. It's also worth noting while the film makes it a point to cite grave statistics involving the drug and opiod epidemic that America is currently in the grips of, the affluent Sheff's economic situation is not one, unfortunately, that most struggling with addiction are familiar with, lending the film the quality of a bourgeois cautionary tale.

While I'm hesitant to call Beautiful Boy an outright failure based on the strength of its central performances and its obvious good intentions, in the canon of films to deal earnestly and unflinchingly with drug addiction, Beautiful Boy feels like it offers too little, too late.