After his star-making turn in last year’s “Call Me By Your Name,” fans of Timothée Chalamet have been eagerly awaiting the young actor’s return to the screen. Their wait is over with the release of “Beautiful Boy,” a new drama about a family thrown into turmoil by crystal meth.
It tells the real-life story of successful writer David Sheff (Steve Carrell) and his teenage son Nic (Chalamet), who have what can only be described as the picture-perfect ideal of a father-son relationship until Nic’s increasingly erratic behavior leads to the discovery that he has been using meth. Ever the supportive parent, David is determined to help, but despite his best efforts, Nic continues to relapse and his father is forced to recognize that he can only watch, powerless, as his son slides further into addiction.
Adapted from two complementary memoirs by the real David and Nic Sheff (“Beautiful Boy” and “Tweak,” respectively), the film endeavors to show their experiences from both perspectives. Director Felix Van Groeningen, working from a screenplay he co-authored with Luke Davies, assembles his movie a bit like a collage, flashing forward and backward through time to reveal memories of the past and foreshadows of the future as both father and son endure their separate-but-intertwined struggles. It’s an effective approach; Van Groeningen handles it skillfully, maintaining a natural flow that prevents the non-linear departures from making things seem disjointed.
Even so, this stream-of-consciousness structure — which, along with its eclectic, deep-cut rock-and-roll soundtrack, gives “Beautiful Boy” a comfortably quirky, indie feel — leads to a sort of clinical distance. The tone seems detached and observational; we watch what happens on the screen without really being drawn in to even the most intense situations. As a result, the film is less moving than one might expect or desire from a narrative as emotionally charged as this one.
Not that this is necessarily a flaw; there’s much to be said for the power of understatement in telling such stories. The plot, though based on an admittedly heartbreaking real-life experience, is almost a cliché. We’ve seen it so many times it feels like an overused Hollywood formula, and one that easily turns maudlin at that.
Thankfully, it does not and though Van Groeningen deserves some of the credit for keeping things restrained, it’s really the work of the cast that ensures the movie stays this side of melodrama.
Carrell, known more for his comedic skills, reminds us here that he also possesses some serious acting chops. His portrayal of a devastated father is meticulously truthful; yes, there is anger and despair, but these are punctuations in a journey that is really about frustration, bewilderment, and ultimately acceptance.
As for Chalamet, he veers into territory carved out by actors like DeNiro by undergoing harrowing physical transformation to portray his character in the depth of addiction, but his internal performance is every bit as authentic as his exterior presentation. From the bright confidence of intelligent youth to the blank numbness of a desperate addict and everything in between, this gifted actor brings his role completely to life, proving his astonishing performance in “Call Me By Your Name” was no fluke. The cast is uniformly strong.
The film falls a bit short in that it, like many before it, fails to convey the powerlessness of the addict depicting him as victim of his own choices. The reality, as anyone who either works in recovery or is in recovery themselves will tell you, is that they are as powerless to stop themselves by choice as their loved ones are to help them. That’s the true heartbreak of substance dependence and even though a film may be filled with words that express it, it’s virtually impossible to convey the truth of it to an audience who does not understand it firsthand.