You’ll watch most of Beautiful Boy with a lump in your throat. The story of a father and son (Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet) navigating the younger man’s battle with addiction, the whole film is achingly tender, wounds and vulnerabilities exposed to the light in ways that aren’t always easy to watch, but are always worth the attention.
Based on the memoirs by both father and son, the film owes much of its sensitivity to filmmaker Felix van Groeningen, who adapted the books (with Luke Davies) and created a similarly heartbreaking drama in 2012’s Broken Circle Breakdown. Chalamet is Nic Sheff, not even 20 and completely addicted to heroin and whatever else he can get his hands on. Carell is his father, David, who shares custody with his ex (Amy Ryan) while raising two younger children with current partner Karen (Maura Tierney).
Entirely devoted to his eldest child, David watches helplessly as his son falls deeper and deeper into addiction’s dark black hole, doing everything he can to help. He pays for rehab (more than once); he spends hours scouring the streets of San Francisco in a downpour, looking for Nic after he goes missing. This is a man who would go to the ends of the earth for his child, confused as he is as to how exactly they got to this scary, uncertain place. “We’re not these people!” he shouts at Nic at one point, his temper getting the better of him.
Nic is just as lost, helpless in his own way against the disease that consumes his life. Gone is the bright, promising high-school student, as he hustles and scams for his next hit, disappearing for days on end and coming dangerously close to losing it all on more than one occasion. It’s a scary spiral, getting high, feeling bad about getting high, so getting high to forget about feeling bad…’round and ’round we go.
Last year, Chalamet earned critical acclaim (and an Oscar nomination) for his role in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By My Name. In Groeningen’s capable hands, Beautiful Boy confirms the actor’s bona fides, as he communicates more in a moment—his posture, his gaze, his fidgeting—than in any line of dialogue (though those are beautifully delivered, too). Thankfully, Carell—who’s perhaps better known as a comedic actor—rises to the occasion, meeting Chalamet’s high bar as he evokes moments of pain, frustration and even hope, however fleeting it may be.
Particularly powerful is a scene that finds David at the end of his rope, resigned to the fact that the best way to help his junkie son is to not help him at all. On the call with Nic, he’s calm and collected, so direct and certain that it’s practically cold-hearted. Immediately after hanging up, David breaks completely, an emotional dam cracking under the pressure of doing the thing that goes against every parental instinct.
A small supporting cast creates Nic’s world, even as it collapses around him. Tierney as David’s understanding yet pragmatic partner is perfectly tuned to match his growing desperation, and Ryan as Nic’s distant (emotionally and geographically) mother provides a counterbalance to the day-in and day-out struggle. Andre Royo shows up as Nic’s sponsor as he attempts to get sober, and his style of no-nonsense straight talk seem to be just what Nic needs to hear in his hardest moments. Whether it gets through to him or not is something else entirely.
As a story about addiction, Beautiful Boy is triggering, as it doesn’t shy away from scenes of shooting up, scenes of poor decisions made under the influence, scenes where Nic is nearly unrecognizable behind the high. Seeing the usage in all its ugly glory is hard enough as someone without a problem; if addiction is something you struggle with or if you’re someone trying to help a loved one with the same disease, that lump in your throat may turn you into complete despair as the film progresses. Aware of the potential for agony here, Groeningen is careful to imbue the difficult narrative with light and air in moments that warrant it: Nic driving to his dad’s house, windows rolled down and the wind in his hair; a sun-drenched garden at the latest rehab where he’s working to control his disease. They’re brief reprieves from anguish, and we feel them—and need them—just as assuredly as Nic does.
Through their story, bravely shared in their memoirs and here adapted into a stirring, unexpectedly hopeful exploration of familial love, Nic and David put everything on the table. Beautiful Boy achingly recounts their darkest moments, some of the most painful times imaginable. Along the way, it acknowledges that which anyone who’s ever known a struggle can tell you is true: the only way out is through.
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