Early in Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy, based on the best selling novels by David and Nic Sheff, David (Steve Carrell) is told that relapse is to be expected in addiction recovery – even thought of as one of the many steps – as his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet) suffers the first of many to come after a stint in rehab. And relapse he does, messily, chaotically and desperately, causing immeasurable pain to his family and inflicting an intense form of self-destruction onto himself. The film adapts the Sheff’s story and due to the insidious nature of addiction along with the steadfast focus the film has on its two leads, it means we too are stuck in the loop of sobriety, relapse, recovery, manipulation, relapse again, repeat. It’s often sloppily hobbled together and there’s the sense gathered that Groeningen and fellow scribe Luke Davies both had too much and not enough story to explore but despite the barely concealed cracks in the veneer, they steers our eyes away with a tremendously visceral and evocative performance by Chalamet.
The film documents Nic starting at 18 years old when his drug problem, specifically his addiction to meth, is exposed. We follow him and his father through the years as they and their surrounding family try and keep Nic off the streets and alive even if they can’t make him choose to seek out sobriety, learning the hard way that it’s something he’ll have to pursue on his own. Oftentimes harrowing and certainly raw in its frank and unflinching look at the real life ramifications and horror of the the disease, the film studiously balances between presenting the story’s information like an educational pamphlet opposed to a narrative.
There’s an expected issue with pacing as the first half of the film spends time bouncing between present day – both from Dave and Nic’s point of view, often replaying scenes that happened only moments before but from the others perspective – and flashbacks to happier times between the father and son that explore the foundation of their bond. The back half is, fairly, more concerned with the cyclical nature of addiction and particularly the dangers that comes with Nic’s poison, one that asks its user to continually up the dosage, racing death to chase that high. The latter is more effective because it strips away any trite melodrama that came before, imploring that it doesn’t matter what circumstances you’re born under or how lovely and attentive your parents are, the disease doesn’t take that into account.
The last half being the most effective though means we’re spending quite a deal of time in a bruising environment as we watch Nic make increasingly dangerous decisions or relapse just as it seems he’s truly gotten his life together while David slowly loses faith in his son’s ability to get clean, doubting his role too once he realizes the son he thought he knew has become a stranger.
Groeningen and Davies possess a great deal of empathy for the characters, shown through the many mini vignettes of their connection which adds to the storytelling in more of a sentimental “what went wrong” hypothetical opposed to anything substantial to the film itself. The affection between the two was apparent through Carrell and Chalamet’s chemistry; tacking on scenes of Nic’s childhood are some of the few moments where the grab for emotional response feel manipulative.
Carrell works well in this style of dramatic setting, playing the reactionary character rather than the driving force of the drama, giving those reins to Chalamet whose tumultuous emotions offer up enough torment and plot enablers. Carrell is a warm beacon of stability, both to the film and as David for Nic and his naturalism and offbeat humor grants David a winsome sense of normalcy even in his darkest moments and David, thanks to the script that doesn’t ever paint in broad strokes, is always remarkably human, as fallible to error as Nic. Chalamet and Carrell imbue both characters with believable, “us against the world” affection, that lived in chemistry extending itself to their relationships with Nic’s younger siblings, his mother (Amy Ryan) and step-mom (Maura Tierney). The cast is uniformly strong, all given moments to shine.
But while this is a two hander – effective despite its flaws because of it even – this is Chalamet’s show and he astonishes. Having already stunned in last years Call Me By Your Name, Beautiful Boy proves not only was that not a one time deal, but also that his versatility runs wide and strong. He’s a remarkably physical performer, whether he be curling in on himself or trying to become bigger and broader despite his lanky frame, filling the space to intimated and manipulate to get his fix. His ability to change demeanor on a dime, to shift his voice to convey to us and imply to those around him that he’s trying to get something versus when he’s being sincere in his cries for help showcases a performer who has an innate understanding of how to layer his delivery, physical and verbal, with double meanings.
Beautiful Boy is unfailing earnest in its heartfelt story about a father and son relationship who manages to withstand a horrible, nearly life ending addiction, a miracle in more ways than one and the actors deliver deft and mesmerizing performances but ultimately it never adds up beyond the sum of its parts. Just like the young man at its center, the film is evocative, at times dazzling and too frequently unreliable as a source of consistent storytelling, but it will manage to wrangle your wandering and aching heart by the end.
This is a reprint from the 2018 Toronto Film Festival.