Like most addiction stories on film, Beautiful Boy follows a particular formula, tracking the cycle of drug abuse from recovery through relapse and back again. Based on the memoirs of father-son Nic and David Sheff, and realized by co-writer Luke Davies and co-writer/director Felix von Groeningen, the film is unflinching in showcasing the effects of abuse on both the abuser the family that cares for him. Filled with quiet, honest performances, the film is affecting and uncomfortable, but also a bit too exhausting, feeling a bit like emotional porn (a big-screen, more focused “This is Us”).
Steve Carrell, continuing his world tour of proving he’s a great actor is David, the divorced and remarried father of drug-addict Nic (Timothee Chalamet), who goes through every stage of emotional trauma when dealing with a user in the family-denial, blame, aggression, support, empathy, sympathy, and resolve. Carrell is really good at disappearing in these everyman roles, and his David is sweet, endearing, but frustrating character, which makes him all the more real. David’s second wife, Karen, delicately played by national treasure Maura Tierney is supportive and understanding, but also able to isolate the problem more readily. Without shining a spotlight on it, the film does a great job of highlighting the nature of being a stepparent and the level of joy and frustration involved. It’s a shame Tierney isn’t in the film more because she really helps to bring a balance between the extremes of the father and son.
Chalamet’s Nic is a sensitive and thoughtful kid that just doesn’t have enough faith in himself or understanding of himself to ever be comfortable in his skin. His decent into harder drugs is completely plausible, not just because it obviously happened, but also because Chalamet finds that awkwardness in every quiet moment, and that struggle that happens both when things are bad, and more difficult when things are good. Chalamet is such an endearing performer that even when his character is making stupid decision after stupid decision you still feel for him and really come to a deeper understanding of the struggle that a lot of addicts deal with. It’s not easily explained, why some are better at handling humanity than others, and the film doesn’t try, because it’s less about the why of being an addict and more about the how of managing it.
One of the more frustrating aspects of the film is that David’s ex-wife is played by the amazing Amy Ryan. Yes, that Amy Ryan, that in Steve Carrell’s most notable role in The Office played the woman that made falling for Carrell’s doofy and agonizing Michael Scott completely plausible. It was both a bit distracting, and subconsciously annoying that this notable couple was reunited again only to be on the other side of a failed marriage dealing with a son continually on the edge of life and death. It also reminded me of when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunited (after Titanic, duh) for Revolotionary Road, as if audiences were clamoring to see the romantic deal with suburban strife and constantly at each other’s throats. Sometimes on-screen romantic pairings are best left unrequited.
But I digress.
Beautiful Boy is a delicate film. As it meanders through expected beats, it hits hard. It’s difficult to downgrade a true story for following well-worn plot points if that’s what really happened, but even with great performances, and with adequate, if placid, direction the film still feels like it’s missing something.
My Grade – B-