Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carell, Maura Turney, Amy Ryan
Running time: 120 minutes
An expectedly strong Timothée Chalamet performance elevates Felix Van Groeningen’s tale of addiction and strained familial relationships into something truly affecting. Beautiful Boy – based on the memoirs of journalist David Sheff and his son Nic – marks Groeningen’s English-language feature debut and comes as a pertinent portrait of drug dependence at a time when troubling Generation Z fixations over body image and social media presence permeate the conversations of concerned parents the world over.
Chalamet and Carell play the duo embroiled in the midst of an increasingly distant Sheff father-son relationship, as Nic (Chalamet) falls deeper and deeper into the abyss of substance abuse – and re-abuse – while dad David (Carell) fights desperately, and often unsuccessfully, to bring him back.
With Beautiful Boy, those hoping for a neatly packaged narrative about venturing to the bottom of the barrel and back up again in a blaze of fist-clenching, emotional glory will be sadly left disappointed. On the contrary, this is a raw slice of a frustrating, zig-zagging existence with small, fleeting peaks and numerous deep, devastating troughs.
The intricacies of Nic’s addiction and various relapses are largely left at arm’s length, however. In opening with David candidly confessing to his son’s problems and voicing his inability to aid him, Groeningen’s film positions its vantage point from that of the helpless parent. Largely denied any degree of omniscience, the details of Nic’s frequent, multiple-day long disappearances are left unexplained, leaving us only to surmise, much like David, as to the whereabouts and activities of his teenage son.
Groeningen appears far less interested in explaining the reasons people fall into a life consumed by addiction as he is compelled to explore the familial fissures it causes, and the despairing attempts by loved ones to connect. Such struggles are optimised through the film’s fractured linearity, where intercutting flashbacks of happier times – surfing, car sing-alongs, and conversing in Klingon – accentuate David increasingly puzzled psyche as tries, and fails, to pinpoint where things went so wrong. Punctuated by a plentiful soundtrack, it’s a touching, if at times a little on-the-nose journey that, despite an occasional propensity to tell us exactly how (and when) to feel, never concedes to convention. As a result, its message is one that clings to us that bit longer.
Off the back of two recent portrayals of real-life figures in Vice’s Donald Rumsfeld and the creator of the Barbie-inhabited titular community in Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen, Steve Carell, as he did in Foxcatcher, once again showcases his impressive ability to give us a heavy dose of the sincere. Here, as David, Carell is reined-in but suitably impactful as a father helplessly scrabbling around in the dark – sometimes, quite literally, as he trawls down Google search pages in the early hours – in search of answers.
It’s Chalamet, however, channelling a mature blend of rebelliousness, vulnerability and emotional expressiveness who truly captivates, and wholly convinces, as a youthful soul wrestling with his own urges as he succumbs time and again to a life that repeatedly chews him up and spits him out.
But with its prominent father-son focus, the narrative is noticeably lacking in traces of a meaningful female presence. The maternal angle is there – in the form of mother Vicki (Ryan) and step-mother Karen (Turney) – but both roles are reduced to little more than background support mechanisms or verbal punching bags for David to swing his vexation towards. It’s a disappointing blotch upon an otherwise assured, intimate, honest canvas of parental love pushed to the very limits.
Impressive in its commitment to truth, Beautiful Boy is a necessarily hard-hitting depiction of the ugly world of drug addiction.