Two biographies written by father and son respectively, combined together to create a painfully emotional film directed by Felix Van Groeningen, in his English-language directorial debut Beautiful Boy (2018). Beautiful Boy takes the names and stories chronicled in the books Tweak (Nic Sheff) about the author’s own struggle with drug addiction, and his father’s perspective of the situation in his own biography Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction (David Sheff). Dismissing some of the more gritty details of Nic’s life he suffered through in order to feed his addiction, the film still provides a raw and authentic portrayal of the absolute desperation felt between father and son for survival.
First and foremost, I cried through the majority of the second half and continued long after the final credits rolled. Not just a few tears shed, but heavy crying from a very real feeling of sadness and hopelessness that Beautiful Boy managed to make me feel. As I’ve planned my review and written my notes, I’m still not completely sure how it managed to grip me that hard considering it wasn’t the unpleasant and ‘shocking’ tale you may expect from a film about addiction. But where the emotional impact came from wasn’t the visual tale of a man suffering from a crystal meth addiction, but from Steve Carell’s performance as the father. His desire to do anything to help, his desperation to hold on to his son no matter what, is almost tangible. Timothee Chalamet’s acting capabilities are already recognised as versatile and highly emotional, as witnessed in his past roles in recent years such as Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2018), and his performance in this film is no exception. Carell manages to impress me with each new type of character he plays, and he and Chalamet play off each other well, the spotlight of the story focused on those two as they to fall down a hole together when David is drawn into the intense cycle of Nic’s whirlwind of recovery and relapse.
This cycle, although repetitive, doesn’t leave a monotonous tone to the narrative, as the authentic representation of the pain an addict and their loved ones go through is just that; repetitive. It’s non-linear, just like the narrative structure edited by Nico Leunen who reconstructed the film to give it that feel. Although in the first act I did indeed feel pulled in different directions as the narrative transposed, I eventually settled (as the story did) into the shifts of memories and time that Beautiful Boy draws. The cinematography and editing merges with van Groeningen’s direction, but this does have the side-effect of focusing too much on the aesthetic; something which may not convey the struggles of addiction too well. Chalamet, his acting very raw, still doesn’t portray the visual repercussions all too well, not helped by the choice of musical scores and poems he recites by Charles Bukowski; he seemed too much like the tortured soul of a teenage boy who loved Nirvana, playing into a cliché. Despite this tiptoe on the line of cliché territory, the saviour is in the admirable and effective acting capabilities of Chalamet and his stunning emotional performance alongside Carell. Beautiful Boy may have its platitude moments, but believe me when I say how impactful the story is in spite of this.
The critique I noticed online in the comments of articles about this film, besides people wishing it was ‘more shocking’ (the truth is that films don’t have to be visually shocking in order to be emotionally impactful), was the lack of explanation to Nic’s descent into drugs. A child of divorce yet a seemingly solid and happy relationship with both parents, living in fairly wealthy comfort, the Nic on-screen doesn’t appear to have any definitive ‘trauma’ that pushed him to seek out a chemical comfort. Perhaps Nic himself explains this in his written biography, or maybe the ‘lack of explanation’ is another reason the portrayal of addiction appears just that brutal in Beautiful Boy. The point, to me, is that he did it because it felt good. Through his dialogue, and actions, and muses in his notebook, it can be understood simply that once he’d tried it, as any curious teenager may, it made reality boring, or difficult, or both. Which is how (chemically) it works; Carell’s character himself delves into the world of drug abuse, using his journalistic skills to research (even putting himself directly in the action) in his desperate attempt to understand his son in the hopes he can bring him back from whatever edge he continuously balances on. It even made Nic’s character all that more difficult to watch, as David hangs on to him a thread that he can’t seem to untangle.
Before writing this conclusion, I re-watched the film to help me decide whether to give it the high-score I intended to. I cried again, but the second viewing did help me realise just how glossy the appearance of addiction is portrayed in this film. I do still, however, stand by the amazing performance given by Carell and Chalamet, who help Beautiful Boy become the emotional journey it is and bringing van Groeningen’s visual direction of a harrowing biography to life.