Historically the remit of daytime movies and bad soap operas, addiction stories have become all too real for a lot of families over the past decade, and Beautiful Boy attempts to adapt that story into an honest film while avoiding the inevitable accusation of exploitation of a national crisis.
But the film sidesteps that problem from the start with the knowledge that it has been made with the full consent of the real figures behind the characters. The film tells the true stories of the Sheff family, notably Nick (Timothee Chalamet) and David (Steve Carell) Sheff, who were embroiled for years in the chaos of addiction before, after many struggles depicted in Beautiful Boy, ongoing recovery and two separate book deals for father and son.
Nick is a hugely promising writer and artist who, despite his potential, gets involved with drugs to an extent that lands him in rehab before he can even attend college. Recovery is followed by relapse, followed again by the desire for help. It’s a rollercoaster that will be familiar to anyone who’s lived with or close to serious addiction and, as said, the modern opioid crisis in the US makes it a timely story to tell.
You’d assume from the trailers and everything surrounding the film that Chalamet would run away with it, and he does, but he shares that position with Carell’s wonderfully vulnerable performance – less flashy but never less impactful. It’s a two-hander in the truest sense, which is unsurprising when you consider director Felix van Groeningen had to adapt two books with parallel perspectives into one cohesive story.
He does this in a mixture of ways, the simplest of which on the surface is the split focus between Nick and David at different points in their lives. We see Nick’s childhood from David’s perspective, completely, yet Nick’s darkest moments are never fully apparent to his father. The viewers, therefore, are the only ones fully in on the reality of events, though there are periods of the movie where we are as clueless as the family as to Nick’s whereabouts and wellbeing.
There are also flashbacks dotted around to shed further light on the relationship between the film’s two leading men, necessary when we begin the film with the family at one of its lowest, most confused, points.
Some of the most powerful scenes involve women in this story – a moment with a grieving mother at a support group for parents, or a scene in which David’s wife (Maura Tierney) takes charge of the situation before finally admitting defeat.
It’s all expertly done and also does the admirable job of bringing this kind of story to the screen in a more or less balanced way. Nick is never painted as the devil, destroying the trust of his father and stepmother and forever traumatising the younger siblings who have him on a pedestal. Neither does it show him as a misunderstood youth who just needs something to reach out a hand to him.
It’s messy and dirty and undignified, but for all of this, as well as both stars giving the performances of their careers, Beautiful Boy also feels at times quite detached. It’s a side effect of adapting stories told in the first person and changing it to the third person, like a distant uncle who only comes in at the end recalling what happened to his extended family 10 years ago.
It’s not helped by the privilege of the characters, though the film works hard to make this subtly part of the point. Nick wasn’t working class or the victim of trauma, he just wants to get high.
Beautiful Boy is clearly a movie aimed at the adults in the room, and is a strong depiction of how powerless parents and families can feel when a loved one is spiralling out of control. The fact that Chalamet is so good as Nick underlines this, but sadly the fact that this is a tale based on something as frustrating and illogical as real people’s failings and triumphs stops it from reaching its full potential.
Beautiful Boy is in UK cinemas now.