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Dealing with addiction and confronting the long road to recovery is an unimaginably challenging process yet too often on-screen, films that tackle the subject matter struggle to convey this, that road seeming straight rather than long, twisting and filled with potholes. In Beautiful Boy, Steve Carell’s character is reminded that relapse is part of recovery, a tough reminder that sobriety is not easily obtained, it’s the result of oppressively hard work.
The film, based on two memoirs from a father and son dealing with the latter’s addiction to crystal meth, is a grim endurance test that’s undeniably flawed but in doggedly aiming to portray this unbearable pain with rare authenticity, it has a raw, haunting power. Told in an often intriguing, often frustrating time-jumping format, we see David Sheff (Carell), realising that his 18-year-old son Nic (Timothée Chalamet) has been living a secret life. He tries to help but Nic is resistant and stints in rehab do little to steer Nic away from the destructive path he’s on.
From the very first scene, that sees David admitting to an expert that his son is addicted to crystal meth, there’s a refreshingly matter-of-fact quality to the film, the opening acting as a clear statement of intent: this is not going to be sugarcoated. There are uncomfortable truths about addiction but also about how we deal with those who are addicted and this is when director Felix Van Groeningen’s narrative structure works best. We flit between David uncomfortably showcasing frustration that his son is choosing more rehab over college back to a seemingly harmless scene of the pair talking about marijuana back to a scene of Nic surfing as a kid, his father worried that he might be lost at sea. It’s a difficult, messy mosaic of blame, embarrassment and fear and importantly reminds us that no one is ready to deal with this and when emotional investment is this intense, one’s reactions aren’t always admirable.
Memory can be relentlessly cruel and we see it torture David, wondering if his son’s addiction is somehow his fault and replaying happier times at the most heartbreaking interludes. It’s a film about the aching responsibility of parenting but also its limitations and in the hardest moments, the film accepts that there is only so much that can be done, especially when a destructive drug like meth is involved. There’s a terrifying realisation that for parents who so desperately want to take care of their children, there’s a process of separation that’s often required. In one scene, a grieving mother explains that she has been mourning her daughter for years, even before she died.
In detailing the endless misery of it all, Van Groeningen who is no stranger to tough subject matter after his similarly grim 2012 drama The Broken Circle Breakdown, is also somewhat hampered by the repetition of relapse. In an overlong movie, we inevitably become accustomed to the crushing predictability of Nic’s cycle and after almost two hours, the film can feel thin. His directorial style often recalls that of Jean-Marc Vallée, who recently showed how well it can be used to frame memory in Sharp Objects, but he’s not quite as accomplished and it often feels like a way of dressing up an otherwise formulaic tale. There are moments of crushing emotional weight but as the film progresses, they start to carry less power.
In yet another dramatic role, Carell feels out of his depth. In quieter scenes, he’s serviceable but when conflict arises, he’s rather shrill and ineffective. It feels like a miscast and one that stings given how fantastic Chalamet is, a year on from his breakout performance in Call Me by Your Name. Meth is a drug that can contort the personality of its user and Chalamet is tasked with veering between vulnerability, fear, aggression and desperation, trying to either convince those around him that he’s sober or struggling to feign interest in the monotony of life without drugs in his system. He manages this effortlessly, avoiding what could have been an overly mannered study of various junkie cliches, and makes us genuinely care about a character whose behaviour repeatedly tests the patience of those around him. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him nab a best supporting actor nomination next year.
There’s less depth afforded to the women in the film, from Nic’s one-note mother played by Amy Ryan to David’s new wife, a particularly thankless role for Maura Tierney, but this is a two-hander, just with one hand doing all the heavy lifting.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Beautiful Boy review – Timothée Chalamet shines in grim addiction drama | Toronto film festival 2018