David is a loving father with three children but the eldest Nic, the only child from his first marriage, is addicted to crystal meth. David tries to understand Nic’s condition while Nic struggles with his addiction in the first English language film from director Felix Van Groeningen (THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN).
For anyone going in to BEAUTIFUL BOY completely unawares, there may be a lightbulb moment when the credits roll. After the text revealing the current status of the characters, the credits reveal that this is based on not one, but two, memoirs: one by David Sheff, giving his perspective on his relationship with his son and the effects of his son’s drug addiction, but also one by his son Nic. Felix Van Groeningen’s film is locked almost claustrophobically into the viewpoints of both father and son, occasionally to the film’s detriment, but it survives thanks largely to the quality of the performances of its leads.
Steve Carell is David, who at the film’s start has been living with an awareness of Nic’s problems for over a year. The narrative scatters around throughout Nic’s childhood from David’s perspective, as his casual drug use first becomes apparent, before deeper problems being to reveal themselves. We also then move forward, through Nic’s attempts to commit to rehab and through David’s efforts to find both empathy for and solutions to his son’s plight.
The audience’s initial perspective of Nic is literally framed, a series of photos from Nic’s youth adorning the walls of David’s study. To achieve this, Nic is portrayed in both photos and flashbacks at his various stages of adolescence by four actors: Kue Lawrence, Zachary Rifkin, Jack Dylan Grazer and Timothée Chalamet. While Chalamet dominates the running time, the use of other actors to give a perspective across all of Nic’s formative year strongly implies that David still sees Nic as his vulnerable young son, rather than the troubled young man he’s become.
Where BEAUTIFUL BOY succeeds is in the lack of histrionics in the detail of Nic’s addiction, valuing instead the mundanity of Nic’s attempts to get clean and of David’s frustrations at the inevitability of the cycle of failure in those attempts. The film exhibits a steadily increasing intensity, with each further depth plumbed by the son shown in his father’s quiet desperation. Although the moments of true crisis are few and far between, that doesn’t diminish the expectation within the drama that Nic’s life could complete its unravelling at any moment.
Key to that success are the two central performances: Carell’s increasing anguish at his inability to shape the course of his son’s destiny feels authentic and measured, while Chalamet – admittedly for large parts looking like an advert for the positive health benefits of crystal meth – is believable as the teenager who slips into drugs simply to fill a hole in his otherwise comfortable middle-class existence. They also represent the film’s biggest issue: the perspective is so blinkered to David and Nic’s viewpoints that other characters, including David’s first wife (Amy Ryan) and his second (Maura Tierney), are barely plot ciphers who only register to help articulate David or Nic’s inner processes. (Nic’s first encounter with his girlfriend at college plays out so wordlessly as to be almost comic in its refusal to deviate from the male viewpoint.)
There are a couple of other missteps: a sketch book full of dark drawings and scrawled thoughts is not only a rampant cliché but provides almost 100% of the exposition into Nic’s rationale for drug taking. It might serve to highlight about how David and Nic can communicate about everything except what’s most necessary, but its usage sticks out unnecessarily. David’s attempts to understand the allure of harder drugs also result in a risible scene where he takes cocaine, then experiences a fast-cut montage of knocking things on the floor set to up-tempo jazz.
These aside, BEAUTIFUL BOY still delivers enough tenderness to elicit emotion from its audience, but it’s a gradual release rather than a quick hit. The split perspectives of its leads might occasionally cause the film to lurch narratively, but the anchor of Carell keeps it grounded and watchable.
See BEAUTIFUL BOY at the Cambridge Film Festival on 29th October at 21.30 and 31st at 10.30am.