It’s impossible to watch “Beautiful Boy” without feeling exhausted.
Based on the book “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” by former Valley resident David Sheff about his son, Nic, the film portrays the duo’s struggle with the effects of drug addiction. The term “horrible cycle” comes up from one of the many doctors David, played by Steve Carell, consults. It’s a perfect descriptor for addiction, as Nic, played by Timothée Chalamet, ends up in rehab, recovers, relapses, experiments with new substances, falls back into rehab, recovers and relapses again.
And during every cycle David, who graduated from Saguaro High School in Scottsdale and became a bar mitzvah at Har Zion Congregation, now Or Tzion, tries his hardest to help Nic combat something that is near impossible to understand. Nic also wrote his own memoir, “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.”
Throughout, the film shifts between the perspectives of David and Nic. It also uses both memoirs in its structure. However, most of it focuses on David and how he responds to his son becoming addicted to drugs such as crystal meth and heroin.
Academy Award-nominated director Felix Van Groeningen doesn’t have a traditional three-act structure for his fifth feature film. The film is like a broken mosaic. This allows the movie to jump from different times and perspectives, letting the audience see how Nic’s addiction impacts everyone. Each scene is a piece that adds to the larger picture, but that picture never offers a fully conclusive answer on addiction.
This makes the movie feel like a collage of sporadic montages at times. Some moments, such as Nic’s first year in college or Nic’s relationship with his biological mother, Vicky (Amy Ryan), may have benefited from longer scenes.
While the film’s structure portrays addiction in an honest way, it can feel like the emotional stakes are lessened when repetition rears its head. Nic’s forays into rehab start becoming expected and lose their punch.
What makes up for this are the gripping performances by Carell and Chalamet. Carell continues to shed his sitcom past as he dives into another complicated role. His performance is quiet and understated, and aptly envelops the anxieties a father with a child who is an addict would be going through. He desperately wants to help and to be a supportive father, but he has his limits. As his attempts at saving Nic seem to be futile, he can’t help but wonder (along with the audience) how many second chances one deserves.
Oscar-nominee Chalamet portrays Nic’s addiction without any compromises. Even with the audience understanding what he’s going through, he can be truly despicable and detestable at times. One scene that’s a stand out is when he steals from his grade school aged little brother. But even through the lies, the manic explosions and the stealing Chalamet brings a certain amount of likability to Nic. When he’s off drugs we see him pursue writing as a passion and attend school. One 14-month period of sobriety feels like a victory, or at least a step toward recovery. But nothing is ever permanent, and the audience sees Nic slowly let himself slip multiple times. Sometimes it’s just the tiniest of triggers that throw him back down the rabbit hole. Sometimes there isn’t a trigger at all.
All the main actors do a fantastic job, but there could’ve been more of Ryan and Maura Tierney, who plays Karen, David’s wife. Both actresses don’t have much screen time and could have offered different perspectives on Nic and David.
A smaller, but noticeable gripe is the film’s song selections. Many of them are distracting and add unnecessary melodrama to an already dramatic scene.
“Beautiful Boy” is at its best when it’s quiet and the audience can feel the overwhelming sense of fear, depression and tiring uncertainty. Will this 3 a.m. call be another hospital? How many days has anyone heard from Nic? Is there anything anyone can do to help? JN