Drug addiction was such an abused subject to tackle in a film that you rarely see “drug films” (such as Requiem for a Dream or Trainspotting) nowadays. They mostly act as subplots rather than the focus of a story, because society is now more than aware of how damaging drugs can be. Here comes the true-story based Beautiful Boy to bring this sub-genre back for another round, one that it succeeds at winning.
For two years, Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) has been addicted to all kinds of drugs and alcohol, especially crystal meth. His father, David (Steve Carell), is trying his hardest to get him off them by taking him to rehab, finding him when he runs off and putting him into college. But Nic is not staying sober easily, and both him and David try to deal with this individually and together.
Beautiful Boy gets off to an awkward start with a repetitive and disorganised structure that is reliant on flashbacks and low on narrative flow. Some of these tangents do make sense character-wise but there are too many of them and they make this simple story difficult to follow. This is probably a result of the film having been in the editing bay for 8 months, because a different cut of this film could result in storytelling that is not so all over the place.
The story also initially focuses a bit too much on David over Nic, so until you see the story from Nic’s point-of-view, it is hard to get properly invested in their relationship because of how simple and one-sided it is. As a result of these issues, the strong emotional impact that the film was aiming for is not as present, but it does manage to find it’s footing in the third act. The storytelling is fully coherent, the direction it takes Nic and David’s characters in is engrossing, there is a strong sense of unpredictability and the ending is abrupt yet satisfying.
The script is also quite strong when it comes to the representation of Nic’s addiction, as well as his overall characterisation. The film’s stance on drug use is that it is a result of nature over nurture, and Nic is shown to be a good person who is driven off the deep end by his own desires, so there is investment in wanting to see him overcome it. The nature take is also a very realistic and sad one, being the catalyst for some very effective and dramatic sequences that I suspect will play even harder for anyone who has a family member that has dealt with drugs or any addictions.
Do I need to say that Carell and Chalamet are excellent? Though Carrel reminds you of his comedic work when he yells, he is otherwise extremely sympathetic and relatable. Chalamet is understated and heart-breaking, with him continuing to show why he is becoming one of our best young actors. Neither actor tries too hard and both are perfectly cast. Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan are also great as David’s wife and ex-wife respectively. Both actresses are not nearly as recognised as the two leads so it would be remiss to not point out how well they do.
Despite the editing issues, director Felix van Groeningen succeeds in preventing any feeling of emotional manipulation by filming in an objective and understated manner. There is some effective visual storytelling and the aesthetic is quite pleasant to look at. His soundtrack choices are sometimes effective but also feel random, occurring with such frequency that sometimes the film feels more like a music video, though the juxtaposition between the opening song and opening title was clever.
Beautiful Boy is flawed and perhaps does not achieve the impact it is going for, yet still does manage to be an interesting take on an addiction story. Carell and Chalamet elevate the material and the third act acts as a good conclusion to a somewhat messy first two acts. Worth a watch but not best of the year material.