Beautiful Boy is well-acted and handles a sensitive topic with the care it deserves, yet ends up being an 'important' film more than a well-made one.
Beautiful Boy marks the english-language debut for Belgian filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen, as well as the culmination of a decade-long attempt to adapt David and Nic Sheff's memoirs about the latter's experience battling drug addiction for the big screen. The film screened at numerous festivals ahead of its release in theaters and earned generally positive buzz, especially for the performances by leads Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet. Indeed, in many ways, the Beautiful Boy cast outshines much of the rest of the movie. Beautiful Boy is well-acted and handles a sensitive topic with the care it deserves, yet ends up being an 'important' film more than a well-made one.
Carell stars in Beautiful Boy as David Sheff, a professional journalist whose son Nic (Chalamet) begins drinking and taking drugs while he's still a teenager in the 1990s. By the time Nic is a young adult, he's used just about common drug that's out there and developed an addiction to crystal meth. Desperate to help his son before it's too late, David continuously checks Nic into rehab and back again when he relapses, all while doing research to better understand what his son is going through.
Yet, no matter how hard David, his wife Karen (Maura Tierney), and his ex-wife/Nic's mom Vicki (Amy Ryan) try to help Nic stay clean, he seems to inevitably end up relapsing and using drugs yet again. Over time, Nic's relationship with his family grows all the more strained as he turns to increasingly desperate measures to keep his drug habit going, once the stress of being sober becomes too much for him to bear. Thus, David is eventually forced to confront some hard truths about what he needs to do (or, rather, must not do) to ensure that Nic fully recovers at last.
Adapted from the Sheffs' memoirs (Beautiful Boy and Tweak) by Groeningen and writer Luke Davies (Lion), Beautiful Boy's greatest strength is that it drives home the reality that drug addiction recovery is a cyclical process and that relapse is an often necessary step to a more permanent state of sobriety (counterintuitive it may seem). Problem is, a literary memoir arguably lends itself to a repetitive narrative like that more than a three-act film does. This was clearly an issue that Groeningen ran into during post-production on Beautiful Boy, judging by the reports that he spent seven months editing the movie and even assembled several different cuts before he finished it with the assistance of his longtime collaborator, Nico Leunen. Unfortunately, the final theatrical cut still has pacing issues and struggles to find a rhythm within its repetitious story beats.
The actual editing in Beautiful Boy can certainly be affecting, especially when David is remembering the happier days in his life with a younger Nic (including, a 12-year old Nic played by IT's Jack Dylan Grazer). Still, even these flashbacks can feel mechanical and often fail to bring greater emotional depth or meaning to a scene in the way that similar flashes to the past in something like First Man do (to cite a recent example). The same could be said for the film's other technical elements, be it the otherwise handsome cinematography by DP Ruben Impens or the songs that Groeningen employs to express the mood of any particular sequence or moment. While Beautiful Boy is perfectly respectable when it comes to its general sense of craftsmanship, there's nothing that really stands out about the film or gives it much in the way or personality or unique flavor, either.
Carell and Chalamet's performances are what ultimately give Beautiful Boy most of its pathos and allow it to pack a stronger punch than it might've had without them. Chalamet somehow managed to find weight to lose and, thus, better represent the physicality of a drug addict, yet it's his ability to capture Nic's conflicting sense of guilt, frustration, desperation and (occasionally) joy that really brings the character to life onscreen. Carell likewise excels in realizing David's full range of emotions, whether he's wrestling with his fear that Nic will die if he doesn't drop everything to save him or his anger that any of Nic's problems are happening in the first place. While Beautiful Boy is first and foremost a father-son story about David and Nic, it also provides Tierney and Ryan with their own moment or two to shine (though both actresses still end up feeling under-used, admittedly).
Speaking of which, there's also a valid discussion to be had about whether Beautiful Boy would have benefitted from expanding its gaze to better incorporate Karen and Vicki's experiences dealing with Nic's addiction recovery and/or taking a closer look at the privileges that Nic is afforded (seeing as he comes from a pretty comfortably middle-class white family). At the end of the day, however, the movie is primarily focused on telling its story through David and Nic's eyes, in order to better shine a light on Nic's personal battle with drug addiction. This comparatively non-intersectional approach is nevertheless part of the reason why Beautiful Boy overall has a tendency to feel like a very well-intentioned PSA, but a PSA all the same.
Even if Beautiful Boy falls short of being a great film, it still succeeds at being one that has a real sense of purpose and a reason to exist. It's also a movie that boasts two moving performances and further cements Carell's reputation as an actor who can handle drama and comedy equally well, at the same time that it keeps Chalamet's star on the up and up. Beautiful Boy is (obviously) not an easy watch and will undoubtedly cause some moviegoers to shed more than a few tears, but it's worth checking out - whether in theaters (so you can keep up with this year's awards contenders) or later, when you can watch it and cry in the comfort of your own home.
Beautiful Boy is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 120 minutes long and is rated R for drug content throughout, language, and brief sexual material.
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- Beautiful Boy (2018) release date: Oct 12, 2018