Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Wild” is the best comparison for what to expect with Belgium director Felix Van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy.” Both films focus on the struggle with addiction and despair.
“Beautiful Boy” based on two novels, one from the point of view of the father, the other from the son. It is a gripping and thoroughly emotional film that devastates its audience with an intense look at a parent struggling to save a child from drug addiction. Some might argue that Luke Davis’ (“Lion”) script is too conventional, but the intensity the performances from Steve Carell and Timotheé Chalamet are anything but conventional. “Beautiful Boy” is difficult to watch because it goes much deeper into the struggle where most films settle for an overview.
David Sheff (Carell) raised a beautiful boy named Nic (Chalamet) who despite some outlandish and eccentric life choices, grew up with loving and nurturing parents.
“Everybody does it,” an 18-year-old Nic says to his dad, pressuring him to smoke a joint together. Unsurprisingly, Nic eventually becomes addicted to crystal meth and despite interventions from his parents, moves to different homes, halfway houses, etc., nothing works. So many starts and stops have led David to a desperation he doesn’t know how to combat.
“Relapse is part of recovery,” David is told. Unfortunately, the recovery rate for crystal meth addicts is in the single digits. There comes a point when David has nothing left to try, nothing left to give, and must let go of the person he loves most.
The casting is really why “Beautiful Boy” works so well. It had to be a beloved actor in the lead like Carell, and Chalamet who is the most promising rising star in a generation, so you can care about both men despite the things they do on screen.
Chalamet, the Oscar-nominated “Call Me By Your Name” star, has this ability to give everything to his characters, which allows the audience to see and experience whatever pain or sorrow his cinematic journey is taking. Chalamet’s Nic is far less subtle than his Italian coming of age Elio last year. This performance works in the opposite way, we always know what Nic is feeling. Chalamet’s idiosyncrasies and emotions are as devastatingly believable as Carell’s sorrow. To say this is the performance of Carell’s career so far is an understatement. It’s the type of performance that wins awards and defines a career.
The film’s editing works to tug on your heartstrings. Often David will be in a particular place or setting in the present day (i.e. Nic’s empty bedroom) and the story will flashback to Nic as a child, reminding us of how bad things have gotten. There are a few times, where it’s unclear which time period we are in, past or present.
The irony of ‘beautiful’ is apparent in the films look. Cinematographer Ruben Impens shows us breathtaking colors and images of the California coast, including cozy framed long shots of the family home and intimate close-ups on the beach. Even If you are one who manages to keep your emotions in check, the airport scene will leave no eye dry. The explanation of “everything,” something the father and son commonly say to each other, is given full context and origin.
“Beautiful Boy” has a cunning way of continually asking the viewer to step into David’s circumstances. This effective tool is the reason this movie will change the way you look at and perceive addiction.
Final Thought: Carell and Chalamet are destined to become awards season frontrunners with two of the years most dynamic performances.