Arts movie review

Great acting combats disappointing direction

‘Beautiful Boy’ leaves something to be desired, despite impressive performances by Carell and Chalamet

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Karen Babour (Maura Tierney) embraces Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) while Daisy Sheff (Oakley Bull), Jasper Sheff (Christian Convery), and David Sheff (Steve Carell) stand around them in a scene from the film 'Beautiful Boy.'
Courtesy of Amazon Studios (Francois Duhamel)

Beautiful Boy
Directed by Felix van Groeningen
Screenplay by Felix van Groeningen and Luke Davies
Starring Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, and Timothy Hutton
Rated R, Now Playing

Based on the autobiographical memoirs Tweak by Nic Sheff and Beautiful Boy by David Sheff, Felix van Groeningen’s drama Beautiful Boy stars Timothée Chalamet as a drug-addict (Nic) and Steve Carell as his concerned father (David).

Nic is a good kid whose life takes a turn for the worse into the abyss of drug abuse. We witness as Nic pops in and out of rehab and school, is sober for weeks then relapses; all the while, his father struggles with how best to help him. The film plays with time liberally, switching between the past and the present in brief shots meant to juxtapose Nic’s onerous teenage years with the jovial buoyancy of childhood. While this parallelism is effective to some extent — begging us to reminisce about a simpler time and to sympathize with David’s parenting difficulties — it can seem frenzied and choppy at times.

Directors of movies based on personal memoirs, especially those involving violence or drugs, face a common puzzle: balancing the truth, dark as it may be, with the importance of appealing to general audiences. I have yet to watch a movie that has erred on the traumatic side; directors always opt to glaze over the most uncomfortable moments for fear of alienating their viewers. In Beautiful Boy, Felix van Groeningen is, disappointingly, no different. When it comes to portraying the brutal and terrifying effects of methamphetamines that Nic experienced (and we know the gruesome details, because they’re right there in the memoirs), Groeningen safely skips over the worst parts and ruins the potentially poignant emotional impact of the movie. When we do see Nic injecting himself with drugs, his filthy bloodied arm hints at the pain he’s endured, but the scenes are cut short and we must immediately turn our attention to the aftermath.

David’s side of the story has similar issues. We hear about meth’s terrifying effects on the brain, but mostly through David’s research, rather than through Nic’s behavior. And yes, we feel David’s confusion and pain when Nic screams at him, storms out of the house, drops off the face of the earth, or draws anxiety-ridden images in his sketchbook –– but their relationship too closely resembles that of a classic rebellious teenager and an worrisome father. As a result, we are unfairly shielded against the elements of story that should tear us apart emotionally.

To those who haven’t personally experienced the sirenic calls of addiction or witnessed a loved one fall under its clutches, Beautiful Boy is not quite enough to put viewers in Nic’s shoes. Luckily, Chalamet and Carell’s remarkable chemistry on stage saves that blunder from defining the film. Carell, who deals mostly in comedy, dispels any doubts that his skills don’t translate to drama. David comes to life through Carell’s performance; even those of us who aren’t parents come to understand the emotional torture a father feels when his beloved son’s life falls out of his control. Rising star Chalamet repeats, or even tops, his impressive performance in Call Me By Your Name; in his tormented eyes we can see Nic’s pain and emptiness, despite production faults that dampen our emotional involvement in the film as a whole.

It’s not that the film portrays addiction incorrectly or badly; it does better than most movies on the topic. Beautiful Boy just doesn’t want to get into the gritty stuff. With a few more risks, it could’ve been a very powerful story.