Synopsis – Based on the best-selling pair of memoirs from father and son David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy chronicles the heartbreaking and inspiring experience of survival, relapse, and recovery in a family coping with addiction over many years.
My Take – To say that drug abuse has become a major hindrance in youth all over the world would be an understatement. Witnessing a friend or an acquaintance spiral into addiction is abjectly awful, but for a parent watching their child make that descent, the torture must be compounded a hundred-fold. Here, this decades old terror of an experience forms the crux of this film from Belgian director Felix Van Groningen (The Broken Circle), who here in his English-language feature debut adapts the harrowing true story from a pair of memoirs by writer David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff, which chronicles Nic’s meth addiction when he was a teenager.
While the film draws on former addict Nic’s first-person history of his addiction to crystal meth in some sections, it’s his father’s account that informs the film’s perspective. The dynamic between the two of them serves as the main narrative for the story, with subplots and a number of different timelines unfolding throughout. While this film on a timely topic may be occasionally frustrating in its relapses and at times heavy and bleak, but there is a lightness of touch in the film that keeps it from being enveloped in unbearable darkness.
Mainly built upon the performances of Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, who turn what could have been a hand-wringing exercise in cliché into something rather stronger. Indeed it’s a sad and super emotional story, but it’s masterfully directed, puts all the emotions in place and lets the viewer live with it long after the credits roll, which I highly recommend not to miss.
The story follows David Sheff (Steve Carrell), a New York Times writer, who lives in San Francisco with his second wife Karen (Maura Tierney), their two little kids Jasper (Christian Convery) and Daisy (Oakley Bull), and Nicholas aka Nic (Timothée Chalamet), the son he had with his first wife Vicki (Amy Ryan). Ever since he was young David has been close to Nic, a cheerful and fearless kid, jubilant at the arrival of his younger siblings and loved catching waves with him, but at the age of 17 when he seemed ready to go to college, Nic mysteriously goes missing, making David realize that his son has been an addict and a liar for years.
As Nic’s behavior grows ever more unpredictable and dangerous, teetering through cycles of recovery and relapse, David reckons with his own desperate reactions to his son’s deterioration, struggling in futility to help him all the while constantly testing his patience and straining his relationships with others.
Here, the film raises a question – What’s harder? Being the victim of drugs or being the caring onlookers desperately hoping that this attempt to climb the slippery pole to recovery will be a successful one? This is reflected as a key aspect of the film, and as a parent it makes for a very hard watch. The ‘caring onlookers’ in this case are Nic’s father David, his wife Karen, the couple’s natural young children, and David’s ex-wife and Nic’s mother Vicki. We witness how the addiction affects the entire family and how average people can be sucked into the black hole that drugs offers. The film is honest and I empathized with the issues because the film explores the pain in such a real way. Unlike most films on the topic, director Felix Van Groningen here chose to present the film in a non-linear way.
Often times it does show flashbacks. One moment you’re watching a father laugh at his son reciting rock song lyrics, and the next you’re watching him search for his child: OD in the back alleys of LA. While this might affect some viewing experience, I personally thought it worked, as it helped us in divulging into David’s mind and understand where he’s coming from. He probably is thinking “Where did I go wrong?” I also felt the director did a good job of establishing shots to remind you of a happier time without using flashbacks. For instance there is a scene where Nic is playing with his younger siblings in the sprinkler and then later (after another heartbreaking scene of Nic fleeing) there is a shot of the empty backyard with the sprinkler coming on.
Sure, this leads to 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. The confrontation between David and a high-as-a-kite Nic at a diner is pretty amazing in its honesty and intensity, and ranks as one of the best scenes that Carell and Chalamet have ever done.
The film is also beautifully-shot. Director Van Groningen‘s primary setting is a family cabin in the woods of San Francisco. Breathtaking in its appearance, surrounded by the forest and a yard surely once filled with memorable family times, the interior is mysteriously gloomy and dark, warning the viewer something is wrong here. Cinematography (Ruben Impens), and the films eerie musical score, further cement the tense presented on screen, dropping the viewer into various SF locations that grab you and hold you down. It also has a fantastic soundtrack that features: Neil Young, Radiohead and John Lennon, among others. Over the course of the story David – like the audience – learn that there are no easy answers or solutions to drug addiction. It proves that this a disease that doesn’t discriminate and can affect everybody. In doing so, it also has cataclysmic effects on the addict’s friends and family. Addiction isn’t something that stops with a user.
However for some reason it’s not revealed how Nic started using drugs or what drew him to it. Did he seek it out himself? Was it a friend who introduced him? What actually ails him remains elusive in the film, one of the film’s flaws in that you don’t ever fully invest in Nic’s emotional state because you don’t understand it — you empathize but you don’t necessarily sympathize.
Another unfortunate casualty of the film’s singular focus on its two leads is the disappointing lack of material for its supporting cast – especially Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan, who both occupy the unfortunate role of ‘concerned-looking wife’. Much of their contribution to the film comes from occasional sidelong glances at Nic or David, or bickering phone calls with David across the country. They’re silent supporters of David’s quest to get sober, serving primarily as figures offering forgiveness from afar, which seems a waste of two incredible performers.
Thankfully the balance between the two leads works very well. Steve Carell is famed for his comedy performances, but between these days he has found more serious roles to occupy himself. This role offers Carell plenty of opportunity to show his remarkable, understated dynamism as a dramatic performer, his concerned father wounded and enraged in equal measure. It’s excruciating watching Carell‘s parental anguish and then (like a blast of light) his realization of a truth he’d been avoiding for a long time.
Timothée Chalamet is proving to be one of the best actors of his generation. Here he is equally as commanding here in the role of the troubled addict, Nic. 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. On the whole, ‘Beautiful Boy’ is a heart-wrenching and compelling human story that will manage to wrangle your aching heart with its display of emotions and authenticity.
Directed – Felix van Groeningen
Rated – R
Run Time – 120 minutes