Beautiful Boy is the true story of David Scheff, his son Nic’s battles with drug addiction, and the impact it has on their family. Directed by Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown), it is adapted as an amalgam of David’s book Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction and Nic’s memoir Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.
The story unfolds from David’s (Steve Carell) point of view and follows his family’s journey though the turmoil of Nic’s (Timothée Chalamet) addiction, recovery and relapses. We see the impact it has on David, his other children, his wife, Karen (Maura Tierney), and Nic’s mother, Vicki (Amy Ryan). Nic’s life unfolds and composes, and unfolds again.
With that subject matter, Beautiful Boy is a tough film to watch. It’s a film clearly aiming for your emotions, and a lot of the time it hits them. At other times it strays a little too far into melodrama, which may be relatively unavoidable in a story such as this one and with an aim to really make you feel. The story is relatively straightforward, even a bit predictable if you’re feeling uncharitable, and it’s not showy. The flashbacks work well, showing us Nic as a child, as a happy young boy who loved spending time with his father, and so we share David’s heartbreak and his powerlessness as Nic’s addiction takes hold. The time hopping is a little unwieldy on occasion, but Van Groeningen manages to corral it all to stop it getting too out of control.
To its credit, Beautiful Boy is thoughtful in its approach. It never demonises Nic and is sensitive in trying to understand what might drive a person to surrender everything in the pursuit of narcotics. But the real reason to watch Beautiful Boy is in the performances. In another universe this film could quite easily have been a TV movie. It’s easy to imagine it playing in the middle of the afternoon with an ex-Beverley Hills 90210 cast member wrenching on your heartstrings instead. This is where the fantastic cast truly elevates the material. While everyone in this is at the top of their game, it’s really all about Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet’s fantastic performances.
Although most well known for his comedy roles, Carell is an excellent dramatic actor, a fact that’s been very evident arguably since his brilliant performance in Little Miss Sunshine. Beautiful Boy allows him to demonstrate just how good he really is. The reason Beautiful Boy has more impact than a TV movie and isn’t overly melodramatic is Carell. His scenes with Chalamet are intense and powerful; it’s impossible not to feel something as David comes to terms with being unable to prevent his son relapsing into addiction.
Chalamet is likewise excellent as Nic, a character who is almost two roles in one: the good-natured kid his family remember – goofing around with his younger brother and sister – and the twitchy, manic, addicted Nic – showing up for lunch with David after weeks off the radar, motivated only by trying to get some money.
It’s intense stuff at times, and while some of the powerful moments make for some wonderful acting, they can leave Beautiful Boy somewhat hamstrung in terms of the movie as a whole. Outside of the acting, the film itself has flaws. The time hopping does get confusing on occasion, particularly when there is little to differentiate young David with old David, other than the subtle greying of his beard. The ending, too, is unsatisfying. It’s one of those movies where the story just sort of… stops.
Beautiful Boy is definitely a film that is worth your time, but be warned, this is not a film that’s going to warm your heart. It’s sad and poignant, and although it’s well acted and well intentioned, it’s not likely to be a film you’ll ever want to revisit once you’ve seen it.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘Beautiful Boy’ hit US cinemas on October 12 and arrives in Australian cinemas on October 25.