Beautiful Boy is a pretty cynical Oscar-movie package. Two big, showy performances by two respected actors – one younger, one older, about an emotionally complicated subject. It sounds like the kind of thing that is designed to compete for awards, and it is. The reception has been rather lukewarm for Beautiful Boy. I’m surprised because while I found it to be somewhat manipulative, it can’t be ignored how effective and emotionally devastating this film is.
Based on two memoirs by David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy follows a father-son relationship that is strained by the son’s drug addiction. David is so surprised his son’s life took this turn. He was always a wise-beyond-his-years kid, was always interested in music and books that his peers weren’t, and always had a good relationship with his divorced parents, but suddenly goes down a rabbit hole of drug abuse and addiction that tear apart the lives of his loved ones. A non-linear narrative, it jumps back and forth in time between important moments in these two lives and how the parent-child bond is tested by something impossible to cope with.
Timothée Chalamet is nothing short of extraordinary. He exhibits all of the promise of Call Me By Your Name in a decidedly showier role, but he still never feels like he’s acting. That’s a huge compliment, because this movie is all about dramatic monologues and big, dramatically tense moments, and yet you still feel like you’re just in the room as this is happening. He and Steve Carell have very good chemistry and are actually quite believable as father and son. Carell is an actor who has drifted toward dramatic roles, after finding years of success in comedy, and this is a movie where every moment has life-and-death dramatic stakes. There isn’t a single joke or a single moment that isn’t stressing the very real stakes at hand here, and that can become emotionally exhausting after awhile.
This movie is draining. The grave, emotionally tense tone is present throughout, which is appropriate, considering the plot is basically any parent’s worst nightmare. It can feel repetitive, but that’s what it feels like to love someone who is struggling with addiction. Nic goes to rehab, is successful living sober for a while, and is seduced back to a life of drug use several times over the course of this movie. It’s exhausting for his family, but also the audience. That’s probably the point. Addiction is also a difficult thing to depict cinematically because it’s so internal in its motivations and its causes. Since this is based on two memoirs, we have insights into each character and instead of a clear good guy or bad guy, it’s easy to sympathize with both characters.
The non-linear structure of this story has frustrated some audiences, but it didn’t bother me. I found the story to be mostly linear and easy to connect to. We have flashbacks that intercut with current action, but it’s always pretty clear what is happening when. There are also some questionable soundtrack choices, including an eye-roll inducing cover of Sunrise, Sunset. A lot of the music feels really on-the-nose in a way that can take you out of the moment.
Beautiful Boy isn’t an easy watch, but it’s worth the effort. Due to stellar performances by Carell and Chalamet, particularly, the conflict here feels truthful and painfully real. This is the English-language debut from Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen, who co-wrote it with Luke Davies. And while it’s nicely shot and truthfully written, nothing here quite suggests that this is a director to watch. However, the two lead performances make up for the filmmaking that isn’t quite on their level. It’s wrenching, difficult, frustrating and ultimately rewarding.