“My world went from black and white to Technicolor,” says young Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet), describing his first experience with crystal meth. Unfortunately, Felix Van Groeningen fails to bring any of this extended palette to Beautiful Boy, a worthy but dour trudge of a drama that fails to find a balance between cautionary tale and an empathetic examination of an addictive personality.
The Sheff family appear to have it all. David (Steve Carrell) is a freelance writer who can somehow afford one of those modernist palatial homes seemingly made entirely from glass and Californian sunshine. He has two delightful moppet children with his attractive bo-ho artist wife Karen (Maura Tierney). He also has a charming, talented and charismatic teenage son Nic, from his first marriage to Vicki (Amy Ryan), with whom he remains on cordial terms. Their idyllic Hollywood existence is shattered however by Nic’s addiction problems, which see him go through various bouts of treatment and relapse, hope and despair, as his devoted father wonders where it went wrong.
Adapted from respective memoirs from David and Nic, “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction”, and “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines”, Beautiful Boy foregrounds David’s experience as the bewildered father trying to rationalise his way through a harrowing situation. This is undoubtedly the film’s biggest flaw. Viewers are pinned like butterflies in David’s spiral of helplessness as Nic goes through a repetitive cycle of hopeful glimmers and stygian crashes. Van Groeningen introduces hazy flashbacks to happier times; of proud David fizzing with love for his son, in an attempt to alleviate the sense of inevitability that hits with the weight of a monstrous comedown. While these scenes have obviously been incorporated to add some moments of joy while maximising the impact of Nic’s (and vicariously, David’s) plight, they merely become a part of the monotony.
Frustratingly, Van Groeningen has made this type of non-linear structure work before. The Broken Circle Breakdown also dealt with huge emotions in broad brushstrokes, while employing a similarly fractured timeline. Its depiction of grief and its impact on a family struck a register somewhere between Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine to heart-wrenching effect. While lacking the formal elegance of those films, it had a direct and serrated sentimentality that worked for the subject matter and was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2014 Oscars.
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Addiction is however a different and more difficult state to convey than grief, requiring a more nuanced depiction of a largely psychological condition. Van Groeningen’s approach is far more muted than in his earlier film, but it still lacks the delicacy required as it reduces Nic to a subject to be investigated, studied and ultimately understood. Chalamet is an undoubted asset here, with a performance that will ensure his star remains very much in the ascendancy and which goes some way to find the essential humanity in Nic, despite the script’s apparent lack of interest. He adeptly channels the mercurial temperament of an addict, and the propensity for emotional manipulation and self-justification. Carrell fares less well, finding it harder to hit the high dramatic notes without traces of the repressed hysteria of his comedic roles creeping in. With something more understated such as Little Miss Sunshine, or when he’s vanishing into a larger-than-life character such as John du Pont in Foxcatcher, he’s undeniably brilliant. He just doesn’t feel like a comfortable fit for this part, which is another reason why the decision to make David the overall focus of the film is a poor one.
As with The Broken Circle Breakdown, music plays a key role in Van Groeningen’s story. It’s a great soundtrack for sure, from the surging ambient post-rock of Mogwai and Sigur Ros, to classics from Neil Young and David Bowie, but too often the music is doing the dramatic heavy lifting, unsubtly leading the viewer through the emotional landscape, in place of the storytelling itself. In this respect, Beautiful Boy again suffers in comparison to the earlier film as Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens’ couple are musicians who bond through their love of bluegrass and Americana, and this forms a compelling and organic backbeat that new film lacks, despite the unimpeachable choices of the songs themselves.
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It’s been suggested that Beautiful Boy is a drama about a family in crisis rather than one specifically about addiction. This arguably cheapens the depiction of addiction and the insidious poisonous roots it thrusts into all aspects of the lives affected, reducing Nic’s condition to nothing more than a dramatic catalyst. It’s undoubtedly well-made, competent, and not without individual engrossing moments; but the overall problem is one of focus.
The film zeroes in too much on David to the detriment of the rest of the characters (the compassionate, supportive Tierney is particularly hard done by) and it fails to convince as a depiction of addiction and the suffering it causes. A film such as Requiem for a Dream does more, in one two-second dopamine-blazing montage, to get beneath the pock-marked skin of the user than anything in Beautiful Boy. It favours sentiment over sensitivity and has one eye obviously fixed on awards potential instead of a commitment to fully engaging with its subject.