In the timeless words of Mr. Mackey, “Drugs are bad, mkay?” Beautiful Boy, an addiction drama starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, reiterates this point ad-nauseam without adding a lot more complexity to the topic than could a cartoon elementary school counselor. Adapted from Nicolas and David Sheff’s tell-all memoirs about a son’s personal struggles with addiction and his father’s battle to deal, Beautiful Boy struggles to add texture to the already established conversation about the horrors of addiction and the tolls it takes on its victims and their families. The product feels overtly telegraphed; a predictable series of ups and downs that lack distinction and uniqueness. As such, the overall impact of the film remains a bit muted. Like an ex-user’s nerve endings, it just can’t deliver the feels that one craves.
Powerfully acted but devoid of any deeper themes or a fresh take on the well-worn narrative of “character trapped in addiction cycle”, the film from director Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown), focuses on a father (Carrell) and son’s (Chalamet) increasingly creaky relationship over the course of a number of years spent battling addiction. We see Chalamet’s Nic cope with his inadequacies and deep-seated shame and Carell’s David attempt to understand by any means necessary – involving blowing lines of crystal to put himself in the same headspace as his unraveling offspring. Once a star student with admission offers to six of the six colleges he applied to, Nic has evolved from smoking bowls to huffing ice. He’s hot to trot for what Heisenberg is dishing out and his life has become a dumpster fire in no time at all. Jumping right into the thick of his problems with drugs, Beautiful Boy sees Nic quickly rushed off to his inaugural stint in rehab in its first act and we know that this is just the beginning of a long cycle of recovery and relapse, recovery and relapse, recovery and relapse.
For the remainder of the film, we see Nic in and out of rehab, clinics, hospitals, group homes, and literal dumpsters, having brushes with ruined relationships, criminality, and a lion’s share of overdoses. The subject matter is inherently challenging and Chalamet is nothing short of fantastic conveying the tectonic mood swings of the speed-afflicted but Beautiful Boy rarely rises to its own narrative peaks, instead just presenting a collage of events that don’t necessarily lump together into a sum greater than an impressive Oscar reel of acting moments.
The script from Groeningen and Luke Davies (Lion) integrates flashbacks to the father-son’s past to complicate Nic and David’s relationship, adding critical context to their close-knit but complicated bond. Be it their surfing dangerous breaks together or sharing a ceremonial one-time joint, these scenes help paint a portrait of normalcy that has since escaped them. David chases that high of pride and intimacy with his son, much like Nic does with drugs. Weighing in at a fairly unnecessary two hours, Beautiful Boy lacks needed editorial balance, rarely erupting in moments of high emotions, even in especially difficult moments. The emotional temper of the film is uncharacteristically flat for an addiction drama, the movie involving us in these characters lives as curious observers, if never true empathetic voyeurs. We feel for David and Nic but remain detached – an audience to their trauma.
Their performances anchor the film, Chalamet, in particular, oscillates between the mind-bending highs and vicious lows on his rollercoaster journey with addiction with a wide-eyed sincerity. His regret and anguish are palpable as are his laser-brained moments of euphoria. Through his eyes, we see the magical horror of heroin and Chalamet’s well-studied depiction makes everything feel all too real. Carrell too is great (yet again), delivering a grief-laced take on a father desperately trying to reason with his son’s drug-addled implosion, to find reason, to diagnose a solution, and, ultimately, to accept. Taken as a well-performed two-hander, Beautiful Boy succeeds without reservation, falling into that familiar category of film where the stellar performances far outweigh the value of the film they find themselves in.
CONCLUSION: ‘Beautiful Boy’ smuggles two top-shelf performances into an otherwise benign chapter book story of addiction that hits all the familiar notes. Though Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet deserve legitimate attention for their raw turns, the film from Felix Van Groeningen is elsewise a bit high on its own supply.