Last weekend on a rainy, cold day I went to see the latest Timothée Chalamet star vehicle, Beautiful Boy. The film is a haunting and ambitious dramatization of the struggles of a meth addict, Nic Sheff and his devoted –– almost cripplingly so –– father, David Sheff. The movie is large and looming, beautifully shot with San Fransisco coloring, dabbled sunlight, and long takes that capture every emotion, but it is also as tiring as the struggle to beat addiction.
I mean that in the sense that Nic and David Sheff’s story is certainly one that deserves to be told. Nic battled addiction for years and as the end credits point out, he has fought hard for eight long years of sobriety. That is a triumph that no one can or ever should take away or make light of, and this story does not turn a deft eye to the realities of addiction. Rather it shows it all, the good, the bad, the ugly. The problem lies in the emotional connection to the viewer. This may be my opinion, though it is shared with some fellow cinephiles, but something kept me at arm’s length emotionally throughout the entire film.
Let me start by saying that it was not because of the staggering performances from Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet. Carell is at another career best since Foxcatcher for which he received critical acclaim and accolades. This film shows why you cannot and should not pigeonhole comedic actors. Carell is a force of grief and paternal love throughout the entire film. His drive gives the film drive, his anguish is palpable when he sense Nic stole from his little brother, when he meet’s his son for lunch and asks if they can’t “just sit and talk like they used to” when a clearly high Nic asks for money, when he waits for a plan with brain numbing calmness as he goes to find Nic in hospital in New York after an overdose. Carell is amazing as he struggles to understand the addiction that has changed his beautiful boy.
Equally impressive in the film is Chalamet, who like another burgeoning young talent Lucas Hedges, is going to find himself in the discussion for best Oscar races again. It of course doesn’t hurt that Chalamet physically looks gaunt and twitchy, his smiles always seem to hide sadness, he definitely did not have to stretch to be an angsty, struggling teen. You see his range though in his desperation, his inability to move away from this addiction that has quite literally derailed his life. There is moment that he pleads to his dad that “this is him now” this is how he is always going to be. He can’t seem to find a way out. Now these performances are of course the heart and subject of the film. One issue that centrality creates is a confusion on who is the main character, is it David or is it his beautiful boy? Sadly, the other characters are barely examined. Maura Tierney (who is magnificent and should be in countless more films) only gets one stand out moment, but she does run with it and make it worth every second and is a great contender for the”amazing actresses crying while driving” indie film scenes category.
The film struggles with this question and, in my opinion, also struggles with timing. The film attempts a sort of flashback, flash forward type of storytelling. I assume this is an attempt to show viewers how Nic reached this point, but it comes across as disjointed, confusing. You got the sense that the director, Felix van Groeningen, is attempting to tell so much more of the story than the memories can recall. This choppy storytelling is a product of the source material. Memoir’s are a tricky literary genre, written in unpredictable forms with chapters can that read as string of consciousness. That is hard to nail down into a screenplay with emotions that jump off the page, but not always the screen. This is to the film’s detriment as it softens the emotional blow of such a powerful story. This comes across most obviously in what I will call the several “ending songs” that were scattered throughout the movie. There were a couple of times when I was sure the film was going to end, but so like the struggle of addiction, it’s never that easy. It was roller coaster that acted as unpredictable as the disease, and I suppose there is a sense of poetic justice to it. Overall, it was a touching story with two great leads, but not enough emotional power to match
But don’t take my word for it, go support your local Art House cinema and go see it for yourself!