There’s a lot riding on Beautiful Boy, the first major awards season contender for Timothée Chalamet after the phenomenon that was Call Me By Your Name. The film, a combined adaptation of the addiction memoirs Beautiful Boy and Tweak by father and son David and Nic Scheff, is the first English-language film for Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen, whose Broken Circle Breakdown was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2014. All of the elements are there to make Beautiful Boy an incredibly moving piece of work. Steve Carell stars as David Scheff, the endlessly supportive father, a journalist trying to get to the bottom of his son’s inexplicable and devastating addiction to crystal meth and heroin. Chalamet is perfectly cast in the role of Nic, the tortured young man who idolizes Bukowski and other beautifully addicted and depressed artists. With a moody Northern California setting and lauded European director, the result should be a winning equation.
However, van Groeningen modulates the flow of the story too carefully, never hitting the highest highs or lowest lows; rather, meandering around the torturous journey that this family has to undergo while their loved one is deep in the throes of addiction. In that way, Beautiful Boy is devastatingly realistic—as much as you might try, you can’t fix someone; they have to choose to fix themselves. That’s an impossible position for a parent who has spent a lifetime caring for and being responsible for the needs and safety of their child, and this is illustrated painstakingly in the story, and in Carell’s tormented performance.
And yet, there’s something about Beautiful Boy that just doesn’t quite come together. The film holds you at arm’s length, never quite letting you all the way in, never fully showing the ugliest or rawest moments, perhaps because it privileges David’s point of view. Though this film ostensibly combines the memoirs of David and Nic, David is largely the center of the story. As a journalist, he wants to be able to explain, research and investigate his son’s addiction, until he realizes that he’ll never understand it.
Van Groeningen takes an extremely granular approach to non-linear storytelling that works until it doesn’t. Almost every scene is intercut with a flashback, and often flashbacks are nested inside of flashbacks until we’re unsure of what timeline is the present, offered only breadcrumbs of time to mark the way. These flashbacks can be used to great effect, especially memories that David has of Nic as a young boy. As he strokes his 20 year-old son’s hair while he sleeps on the floor of a New York City hotel room, fresh out of Bellevue Hospital after an OD, David is struck by the memory of stroking Nic’s hair and singing him to sleep with the John Lennon song “Beautiful Boy.” It’s the same boy that he loves and cares for, even if he doesn’t even feel like he knows who this person is at times.
But the flashbacks and non-linear structure become increasingly confusing and unnecessary. Almost every scene is chopped up with some flash-forward or back, and while sometimes that can reveal something interesting, a juxtaposition or challenging of an assumption, more often it feels like a useless trick, or a jumpy narrative trigger finger that refuses to sit still. You start to long for a moment in a scene where we can simply just watch and be present in the moment, and the editing continually denies us that sense of presence.
We also have no idea of who these characters are outside of their addiction. We have some understanding of the things that Nic likes: the music, writers, and sports that he’s into, though those are superficial. But that focus could be a comment on how addiction operates and affects everyone that this disease touches, with identity subsumed by this beast, this dark cloud.
Chalamet is predictably great, though his best is yet to come. He ably captures the charm, shiftiness, and desperation of an addict, but there’s something elusive about the character, something unseen that evades our understanding, which may be a reflection of film’s focus on David’s perspective. Therefore, Carell is more affecting in this role, as we follow the ebbs and flows of his journey in more detail, moving from controlling father to letting his son go on his own journey, alone.
Beautiful Boy is a lovely but often frustrating film, withholding what it promises through storytelling choices that don’t always work. For some it will hit home deeply. Others may be left cold.
3 stars out of 5
Images: Amazon Studios