Let no one accuse “Beautiful Boy” of false advertising: The film’s protagonist, Nic Sheff, more than lives up to the title, a bright, charismatic young man who, as brought to life by Timothée Chalamet, brims with ethereal sensitivity.
The fact that Nic is such a sweetheart is what makes “Beautiful Boy” so excruciating: As the film opens, Nic’s father, David (Steve Carell), is visiting a drug addiction expert – not in his capacity as a freelance reporter, he clarifies, but as a panicked father. Based on memoirs by the real-life Nic and David Sheff, “Beautiful Boy” recounts, with harrowing detail and an encroaching sense of dread, how a child of privilege and promise became hostage to drugs, in this case methamphetamine, as a teenager and young adult. In a more oblique way, it serves as a sobering cautionary tale about the dangers of parents projecting their egos, identities and expectations on children whose journeys will always be their own, for better or worst-of-the-worse.
Moms and dads know the script by heart when their children succeed: They’re proud or, if they want to pose as more enlightened, “humbled” by the discipline and God-given talent of their progeny. But what happens when a child’s life inexplicably goes to hell? After it becomes clear that Nic’s adolescent dabbling in substances has given way to more alarming compulsions – including stealing from the piggy banks of his young stepsiblings to pay for his habit – David does what most self-respecting journalists would do: He tries to report his way out of it, accumulating facts, figures and anecdotes as a way to wrap his mind around events that are rapidly spinning out of control. It’s only through the wrenching cycle of rehab-relapse-rinse-and-repeat that David slowly realizes that, despite his intelligence and protective impulses, he’s not in charge.
Directed by Felix Van Groeningen from a script by Luke Davies, “Beautiful Boy” possesses the high-gloss attractiveness of an episode of “Big Little Lies”; the rustic Marin County house that David shares with his artist wife, Karen (Maura Tierney), oozes offhand alt-hippie chic. She even paints the trunks of the trees in the yard, suggesting a karmic debt they’ll surely pay for, if not now then down the road. Van Groeningen tries to inject novelty into an otherwise downbeat, by-the-numbers addiction drama by aestheticizing it, scrambling time frames and dropping in impressionistic flashbacks of better days; viewers, however, won’t be fooled into thinking “Beautiful Boy” is anything but a deep dive into the kind of suffering and terror that will make them want to rush to the nearest telephone to make sure the kids are all right.
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As the chief avatar for parental distress, Carell is sympathetic if not always entirely convincing: The toughest moments of “Beautiful Boy” simply seem out of his range as an actor, especially when he takes reportorial zeal one step too far by trying meth himself. One of the strengths of Davies’s script is how it portrays David as constantly, quietly judging the worth of all that he encounters, and the corrosive effect it has on his son, but Carell doesn’t play those layers with any degree of subtlety or nuance.
As Nic touches rock bottom only to find new ways to define that term, the narrative takes on a perfunctory and finally gruesome sense of inevitability: There are the inevitable fights between David and Karen, as well as confrontations with David’s ex-wife, Vicki (Amy Ryan, in a slightly surreal turn for any fan of “The Office”); specialists and caregivers deliver the requisite number of tough-love sermons and come-to-Jesus moments in a film that rarely veers from the expected formula. (The movie is distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeffrey Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
And, of course, there are the sickening scenes of Nic engaging in life-or-death combat with a force as seductive as it is murderous. On the heels of fabulous performances in 2017’s “Lady Bird” and “Call Me By Your Name,” Chalamet now leaves no doubt that he’s an actor of refined and profound gifts: His performance in “Beautiful Boy” helps elevate a boho-bourgeois melodrama to something that aspires to be more achingly real and human. Whether by design or not, the film refuses to engage some of the more pressing questions that the Sheffs’ story raises, which come down to what made Nic so vulnerable to meth in the first place (he provides a vague clue at one point when he explains that pot “takes the edge off stupid all-day reality”) and what needs to click for addicts to stay clean.
What’s left is a painful, frustrating, sometimes infuriating depiction of helplessness, even passivity, as a life full of potential circles the drain. Put another way, “Beautiful Boy” is about unconditional love, at its most powerless and supernaturally healing.
starring Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Christian Convery, Oakley Bull, Amy Ryan and Kaitlyn Dever. Directed by Felix van Groeningen. Rated R for drug use, crude language and brief sexual material. Running time: 1:52