Witnessing someone spiral into addiction is abjectly awful, but for a parent watching their child make that descent, the torture must be compounded a hundred-fold. The unique terror of that experience forms the central basis of Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy; a true-story drama adapted from two separate memoirs. But while the film draws on former addict Nic Sheff’s first-person history of his addiction to crystal meth in some sections, it’s father David Sheff’s account that most informs Beautiful Boy’s perspective.
As such, like Van Groeningen’s Oscar-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown, Beautiful Boy feels like a horror movie primarily directed at the parents in its audience. That’s especially true of its many flashback scenes, in which the sheer indiscriminateness of addiction is laid bare. There are, of course, predisposing factors that increase one’s likelihood of developing an addiction, but Nic (played by Kue Lawrence and Jack Dylan Grazer in scenes of early childhood) seems to have none of these. As the film hops back in time, we get a full picture of the material comfort and abundance of love that he has always enjoyed, his parents’ divorce being the only blot on an otherwise perfect NorCal childhood. By the time Timothée Chalamet takes over the role, we know Nic to be bright, good-looking, sporty and bookish and possessing of the kind of easy charm that endears him to both teenage girls and their parents. There is nothing in his past or his present to suggest an inclination towards substance abuse; no red flags that, if seen, could have foretold the dark clouds ahead. Nic’s investigative journalist father David (Steve Carell) – professionally trained in uncovering unlikely correlations – struggles to grasp the total lack of cause and effect here, and because the film is mostly told from his perspective, his frustration is ours, too.
For the most part, Beautiful Boy doesn’t believe there is an explanation behind Nic’s addiction (although one-too-many flashbacks invoking his parents’ divorce somewhat cloud the film’s message here). Its assertion that, in cases like Nic’s, there are no answers to be found means that there is much for viewers who have also witnessed the non-selective, ravaging ways of addiction to identify with. Chalamet’s performance is particularly powerful in this sense: he’s excellent at conveying the sheer illogics of the disease, and, even in Nic’s less lucid moments, he is always signaling scraps of the charismatic eighteen-year-old underneath the crushing weight of his habit. There is a terrific scene (glimpsed in the trailer), in which an intoxicated Nic simulates a thin version of his former assured self, feigning a breezy tone as he asks his father for more money to help him continue his “sobriety.” It’s a lie so obvious that it makes the deluding effects of his addiction glaringly, heartbreakingly real. Later, too, when Nic violates a basic tenet of elder sibling-hood, there’s a total lack of self-reproach in him that is terrifying to behold, insofar as it demonstrates just how deeply this sweet young man has been morally corrupted.
Beautiful Boy is at its most affecting when Chalamet is onscreen. That’s a problem because director and co-writer Van Groeningen has insisted on emphasizing David’s POV, and both the material and performance in that area aren’t strong enough to withstand such responsibility. In Carell’s hands, David’s frustration at learning his unconditional love cannot save his son is clear, but we don’t get much of a sense of him beyond that worked-up state. Add to that the many scenes that feel like replays of earlier ones, and Carell’s character comes across as little more than a constant shouty presence. Even that’s more than you can say for Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney (who play Nic’s mother and stepmother respectively) however; considering what time devoted to properly appreciating their characters’ perspective would do for a film that suffers from over-reliance on David’s viewpoint, the two are woefully underused.
All of this is not to criticize Beautiful Boy’s commitment to authenticity, both in terms of recognizing the uglier, rawer emotions David and Nic’s mother Vicki must go through – namely, shame and blame – and in honoring the one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back nature of recovery. These are admirable pursuits, and audiences in the know will likely appreciate them. But while depicting Nic’s frequent darting between sobriety and relapse makes for an accurate telling of his (and most others in his position’s) experiences, there is a lack of narrative ingenuity here that unfortunately impinges on the film’s emotional power. Not to mention, too, that its doggedness in hammering home the endless nature of the relapse-recovery spiral also saps the movie’s end titles of any silver-lining relief they may once have held.
At times, you get the sense that Van Groeningen is aware of the emotional inadequacy of his film, because wildly erratic musical choices are frequently rolled in — presumably in an effort to accentuate the actors’ emotional work – during scenes in which their presence only ends up feeling like a distraction from the same. Musically speaking, Beautiful Boy is at its best when a rumbling, horror-adjacent soundtrack is employed to underscore David’s growing dread, but even these instances pale in comparison to the moments Chalamet commands the screen. That his deeply nuanced performance is so central to the film’s potency — but sadly so sidelined, narratively speaking — means this feels like a frustratingly misdirected effort.