A Searing Portrait Of Addiction Turns Into A PSA
Substance abuse is catnip for filmmakers. Addicts create automatic drama. The arc seems familiar. There’s the first taste of overwhelming bliss, the self-destructive deep dive into heavier doses, the struggles with inner demons, the damage to loved ones, followed by the recovery, the relapse, the constant battle to stay clean. So what else is new?
The source material, for one. Beautiful Boy, a tough, tender, vibrant biographical study of journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his junkie teen son Nic (Timothée Chalamet), is based not just on one memoir but two. Both David and Nic wrote accounts of how Nic’s addiction to meth and heroin ravaged their lives. It’s rare to get the point of view of the suffering father (“Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction”) and his tortured kid (“Tweak”).
An impressive, still-familiar but unexpectedly fresh examination of a family in crisis results. Beautiful Boy proves sympathetic to a kaleidoscope of vantage points over a decade of experiences. It spans the heights of elation and the depths of despair. Thankfully, Belgian director Felix van Groeningen is no stranger to mapping relationships over time. His heartbreaking 2012 romance The Broken Circle Breakdown nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film because of how deftly he charted the emotional journey of a couple’s evolution (and devolution).
BEAUTIFUL BOY ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Felix van Groeningen
Written by: Luke Davies, Felix van Groeningen
Starring: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Timothy Hutton
Running time: 120 min.
Van Groeningen works his magic here, too, shifting back and forth temporally to create a jagged mosaic of helpless anguish. David’s memories of surfing and riding in the car with Nic give way to gut-wrenching confrontations and frantic 911 calls. Nic’s side is well represented, too, with his first semester at college slowly unravelling into secret pill-popping and online research into needle injections.
The non-linear approach gives the film an aura of mystery and self-reflection. But that sparkling structure eventually normalizes into the dull sheen of chronology towards the end. Aside from a few heart-stopping O.D. scenes, the dramatic beats eventually feel a bit too predictable. It doesn’t help that the movie ends with four different explanatory cards that give updates on David and Nic’s lives while also addressing the country’s current opioid epidemic. Affecting drama suddenly turns into big-budget P.S.A.
But the film’s tragic potency lingers, mainly due to Chamalet’s brilliantly nuanced performance of a tortured soul and Carell’s sleight-of-hand turning a sad-sack dad into an admirably hardened survivor of an unimaginable parental gauntlet. Yes, this addiction drama is timely. But occasionally, at its best, it also feels timeless.