There isn’t a drug Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) hasn’t used, but his biggest problem is crystal meth, “The worst one,” as one counsellor puts it. Beautiful Boy, by director Felix Van Groeningen, follows David Sheff (Steve Carell), a kind and loving family man fighting to save his teenage son Nic from drug addiction. Based on two best-selling memoirs, the film offers an up close look at the perils of addiction.
Nic, a smart, charming, and handsome 18-year-old appears to have it all. He comes from a well-off family with thoughtful parents and siblings who adore him. But there’s a void inside of him that all the love in the world can’t fill, and he turns to drugs as a temporary band-aid for this persistent wound. Throughout the film, David endures Nic’s heartbreaking cycle of addiction, recovery, and relapse, while doing everything in his power to heal his son.
An addict’s life is a series of highs and lows, and Van Groeningen and his DP do an excellent job visualizing these emotional contrasts. Now and then, the camera slows down to capture the wonder of everyday beauty. Time seems almost to stop while capturing a moment where sunlight shines down through treetops bathing kids in warm rays as they play on a swing. It’s the type of uplifting memory that struggling people store away to carry them through darker days. And there are plenty of dark days in Nic’s life.
The camera often captures Nic in dim lighting; half his face draped in shadows, a manifestation of his inner darkness. It’s a reminder of the Jekyll and Hyde nature of addiction; the beautiful boy and the tortured addict. When things hit rock bottom, we see Nic in a murky haze with light barely penetrating the darkness surrounding him. These visual depictions ensure that we understand the character’s stark emotional contrasts even when they aren’t verbalizing their feelings.
Beautiful Boy uses an elliptical storytelling style that keeps viewers off balance and makes the timeline tough to track. The story jumps back to different stages of Nic’s childhood; a toddler, pre-teen, adolescent, though the focus remains on adult Nic. There aren’t any time stamps or signifiers of where we’ve landed in the story, so we don’t know the how long Nic has been sober, or the duration of his relapse. When it comes to his sobriety, we’re left to take him at his unreliable word. This tactic offers viewers a hint of what life feels like inside an addict’s perpetual cycle of relapses and recoveries.
The story’s out of sync feeling gets intensified by the bold editing and sound design choices. In one instance, the sound of ocean waves bleeds into the following scene, and we also hear conversations begin before the film cuts to the moment where they occur. These decisions create a hypnotic, dream-like rhythm. I found myself lost in them as Nic’s starts, stops, and relapses blurred together. His perpetual struggles make the story feel repetitive, but that repetition paints a distinct emotional picture, leaving viewers in tune with David’s fruitless mission.
I enjoyed how Van Groeningen uses sound almost to untether viewers from time and pull them deeper into the film, but the film’s score has the opposite effect. The overbearing soundtrack stands out like a cockroach in your Pudding Pop. The song choices are a distraction that kept taking me out of the movie. During emotional moments I found myself envisioning Beautiful Boy’s editors splicing together shots, seeking out the most on-the-nose song choices available. These instances feel like the film screaming out, “Look how crucial this moment is.” They cheapen a decent movie and makes critical story beats come across like high-school anti-drugs PSAs.
It’s strange to say about a story so wrought with emotion, but Beautiful Boy lacks soul. The performances are solid across the board. You feel every bit of David’s hope, anguish, and frustration, and you can’t help but root for him to save his son. And Chalamet adds yet another stellar performance to his already impressive resume. He gives you more than an addict; you also get the loving son whose overtaken by darkness in his soul. The young man is once again marvellous. Amy Ryan doesn’t have much screen time, but she still makes you feel every bit of her character’s suffering. As a person with a heart, I felt for their struggle, but as a moviegoer looking for a compelling story, Beautiful Boy left me wanting.
Even though we’re given ample time to see the Sheff clan’s warm family dynamics, the film defines these characters by their suffering. They each feel like chess pieces shuffled around a board to affect our emotions instead of endearing people who are struggling. It’s the difference between hearing a story about a long-time friend whose battling addiction or the story of an addict you happen to know. Too much of Beautiful Boy feels like excerpts from a case study rather than scenes from a gripping story.
They may have named this story Beautiful Boy, but it’s very much a father’s story. It’s about the sacrifices, compromises, and horrors we endure playing the role of saviour. The picture highlights the doubt and confusion that sets in once we realize we’re powerless to save the people we cherish. Beautiful Boy is a real-life account, but whether Nic Sheff lived or died is beside the point. This story is about David coming to grips with his role in Nic’s life. It’s a painful, dreary, and repetitive account that works better cautionary tale than as an engaging drama.