If outstanding performances alone could carry a movie, Beautiful Boy would rest easily on the shoulders of Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet. The pair play real-life father and son David and Nic Sheff, whose journey through the latter’s harrowing battle with drug addiction formed the basis of not just this film but separate memoirs from both men (David was already an acclaimed journalist).
Carell, who has turned in excellent, understated work in film after film lately (from The Big Short to Last Flag Flying to this), brings nuance and depth to the often thankless role of the parent coping with a child’s fall from grace. Chalamet, meanwhile, fresh off his breakthrough work in Call Me by Your Name, brings the same kind of sensitivity and raw emotion to Nic–although it could be said that the film itself, directed by Felix van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) and co-written by the director and Luke Davis (Lion) serves Nic less effectively.
There are two problems with Beautiful Boy: the first is that Groeningen and Davies make the decision to go back and forth in time, often blunting the impact of individual scenes by cutting away, sometimes confusingly so, to a different era of the Sheffs’ life. The second is that Beautiful Boy, while serious about the issue of addiction, never plunges us all the way into the horror of it, especially when you consider that Nic gets hooked on meth, which often turns people into something resembling walking corpses. Chalamet’s good looks and lovely hair are never very sullied by Nic’s eventually obsessive pursuit of a high that, according to him, made the world go “from black and white to Technicolor.”
Having not read Nic’s memoir, I’m not sure if he elaborates further on that in his writing. But in the context of the film, it’s too generic a statement, especially coming from someone who, at least on the screen, appears to live in a fairly bright world already: budding writer and artist, older brother of two young siblings who adore him (by David’s second marriage, with Maura Tierney also doing nice if underused work as the stepmom who gives everything she can to Nic), and well-loved offspring of a dad who’s just cool enough to share a joint with his son early on.
There is some indication that Nic lived a free enough life as a teenager that he was almost doomed to graduate from harmless drugs like weed to more dangerous substances, and there are also hints that he feels some pressure about going to college and has some residual unhappiness over his relationship with his distant mom (Amy Ryan, poignant when she gets the chance). But the movie takes an overview of the whole experience, never delving deep enough to make us feel what’s really driving Nic, at least until the addiction fully takes the wheel. It also shies away from just how tragic things get.
For example, aside from two brief scenes in a Rolling Stone conference room, we never see David really at work and never get a sense of how Nic’s downward spiral affected the family overall; David is ready to jump on a plane to go get his son at the drop of a hat, and I don’t remember hearing if Tierney’s character even did anything but be there to look worried. There is one scene in which Nic steals $8 from his little sister and lies about it that hints at just how low he might sink, but for a movie based on real people, some of their experiences come across as frustratingly generic.
In that sense, Beautiful Boy has little new to say about a subject that we’ve seen addressed on the screen many, many times before, which leaves us again with just the two central performances. Even though Chalamet is hampered by the script, he still manages to project enough damaged humanity and misdirected rage even if his inner turmoil remains somewhat hidden away. Carell also runs the full range of emotions: a loving and patient David Sheff comes across in the film, but his best moments are the ones where he finally explodes in anger or exasperation–very real responses in a situation where parents, perhaps more than anyone else, are often called upon to offer nothing but unconditional love.
There certainly is a lot of honesty in Beautiful Boy, but it comes in fleeting moments, not in the overall package. While the performances alone by Carell and Chalamet might just be enough to command the viewer’s attention, one is left wondering if the movie could have dug deeper and been more visceral. Heavy-handed music cues shouldn’t be necessary to trigger emotional responses from the audience, but Groeningen seems to think so here, instead of letting the material do the work. In a way, it’s a glossy, somewhat fuzzy view of a subject that deserves to be addressed in stark black-and-white.
Beautiful Boy is out in theaters Friday, Oct. 12.
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