Beautiful Boy

(Van Groeningen, 2018)


Beautiful Boy stars Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet as a father-son duo whose relationship is tested as they come to terms with the son’s methamphetamine addiction. A clear actor-vehicle, Beautiful Boy is the kind of film that lives and dies on the strength of its performances. There is no question that Chalamet and Carell are excellent in their respective roles, but despite their best efforts, something is lacking. The direction, cinematography, and script are all good, but none of the film’s elements (other than its performances) are truly remarkable. It makes sense why the young Chalamet would be drawn to this role, as it will likely garner him his second consecutive Oscar nomination, but on the whole, Beautiful Boy leaves you wanting more.

Timothée Chalamet plays Nic Sheff, a troubled teen who turns to drugs as a way to cope with his internal struggles. Though it never explicitly stated what these struggles are, the film makes clear that Nic’s addiction is not his “problem,” but the solution to his problem. By his side is his father David (Carell), who does everything in his power to help and understand his son. Though David is the film’s clear protagonist, Chalamet delivers the more impactful performance. Raw and undulating, Chalamet is a heartbreaking portrait of addiction. As David learns about the symptoms of meth addiction, the audience can see them mirrored in Nic’s behavior. We gradually see Nic’s thinning body, paranoia, and outbursts of anger as he falls deeper into the chasm of drug abuse.

Much like Nic’s own presence in David’s life, Chalamet weaves his way in and out of frame, only returning back every so often. The film may be about a boy’s addiction, but it is primarily shown through his father’s eyes. Steve Carell is perfectly matched with Chalamet, even if his performance isn’t as explosive. Carell’s stone-faced, sober demeanor will make you forget that he ever made you laugh. A worthy follow-up to his frightening performance in 2014’s Foxcatcher, Beautiful Boy proves yet again that Carell is a gifted dramatic actor. Supporting turns from Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan also contribute a fair amount to film, though Ryan’s character (David’s ex-wife, Vicki) was wildly underutilized.

The pacing and structure of the film are its two biggest flaws. Time jumps between past, present, and future muddle the film’s trajectory to the point where you can’t be sure whether crucial scenes have already taken place or if they are yet to occur. These time jumps are largely used to go back and explain bits of the past that are relevant to the present, but because the space between them is so small, and Chalamet looks basically the same across the entire film, it is hard to pinpoint where the film shifts. Additionally, Chalamet’s performance (and his repor with Carell) is so strong that when he is not present, the film suffers. Carell is great on his own, or opposite Maura Tierney, but Chalamet’s absence is always felt. In some ways it works, as the audience is meant to sympathize with Carell’s fears and insecurities without his son. But in other instances, this emptiness feels entirely unintentional. Carell’s more nuanced performance may be the film’s focus, but it fails to compete with Chalamet’s arresting presence.

Adapted from the combined memoirs of Nic and David Sheff, Beautiful Boy is a film that warns of drug addiction by spotlighting one family’s real life experience with it. It’s a film with an effective message that will undoubtedly be screened in eighth grade health classrooms across the country. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t feel overly preachy or like an after school special, but it does evoke the same feelings as health class classics like Girl, Interrupted and Speak. In some ways, it is educational. Chalamet’s performance in particular really highlights how dangerous drug addiction can be. Beautiful Boy offers conversations, and sometimes even arguments, about drug use— but it never glorifies it. Through strong, realistic performances, Beautiful Boy is able to overcome its narrative shortcomings and provide audiences with a worthwhile family drama. ★★★½

David Merkle