A well-acted but heavy-handed cautionary tale.
It’s hard to make a good film about drug addiction, because it’s hard to portray drug addiction honestly without turning your movie into a finger-wagging cautionary tale. Even the best films to tackle the subject sometimes carry a streak of the old Reefer Madness scare tactics, and Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy, even though it features some truly incredible performances, is no exception.
Beautiful Boy tells the story of David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his teenage son Nic (Timotheé Chalament), who becomes addicted to a series of dangerous drugs, including crystal meth and heroin. The way David saw it, their their lives were relatively perfect: they’re affluent, they have a loving household, and yet Nic’s seemingly conventional teen ennui led to one experimentation after another, and now he’s disappearing for days on end, and he’s an emotional train wreck whenever he does come home.
David and Nic Sheff are real people, who wrote about their experiences living through and coping with drug addiction in their memoirs. Felix Van Groeningen’s film is almost exclusively interested in their mutating relationship, from wholesome childhood playtimes to angry disbelief at each other’s selfishness, to the loneliness of their respective plights. Nic feels as though his father could never understand him, and we watch as David desperately tries to learn more about his son’s experiences, to the point of experimenting with narcotics himself.
Taken strictly as an acting exercise, Beautiful Boy is a small wonder of a motion picture. Timotheé Chalament is operating on another level, channeling James Dean levels of teenage angst, and demonstrating with frustrating clarity the ongoing battle between emotional neediness and defensive resentment. Steve Carell matches Chalament moment for moment, as he struggles to connect the child he once knew to the man who he no longer recognizes,. He waffles repeatedly between enabling, rejecting and building shaky bridges with his son, and his frustration is palpable, even when it’s clearly misplaced.
And yet, it’s hard to shake the sense that out of all the stories of drug addiction in the world, the one Beautiful Boy tells is relatively charmed. The Sheffs are rather wealthy, and can afford to put Nic into rehabilitation centers whenever he needs them. The only time they express any concerns about money is David learns one potential clinic costs $40,000 a week, and even then he shrugs and says it wasn’t the highest rated one on his list anyway. That’s not an experience many people struggling with drug addiction can relate to, which gives Beautiful Boy the frustrating undercurrent of a bourgeois cautionary tale. “It could even happen to YOU, rich people!”
Felix Van Groeningen is no stranger to sweeping, weepy melodramas. His Oscar-nominated 2012 drama The Broken Circle Breakdown told the story of bluegrass musicians whose child gets cancer, and it’s as dramatically subtle as a rock thrown through a window. But it’s also extremely effective, and when Beautiful Boy is at its best it works the same way. Van Groeningen’s latest film is blunt to a fault but it’s an astounding showcase for Chalamet and Carell’s acting talents, with equally impressive supporting turns by Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan as Nic’s mothers, who don’t get nearly enough screen time but eke marvelous moments out of every second they have.