Director: Felix van Groeningen
Stars: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney
This weekend at the cinema has been a strange one as 2019 stutters out of the gate. Yesterday, with a weary exhale, I tried to explain why its best to stay away from M Night Shyamalan’s over-confident folly Glass. As a tonic, I veered in the other direction and picked something at my local indie cinema. Felix van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy, which has received acclaim for Timothée Chalamet’s supporting performance, particularly. I sit now cross-legged, laptop open, the cursor flashing, trying to summon the suitable words for my abject disappointment.
Not in Chalamet. The kid is the real deal. If you’ve been astute you’ll have seen him adding a little to Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and a lot to Luca Guadagnino’s sun-dappled Call Me By Your Name. All floppy haired and wise-behind-the-eyes, he has a louche air about him that all but guarantees his ascendance. For Beautiful Boy he plays Nic Sheff, eighteen year-old son of David (Steve Carell), who has been spiralling into drug addiction for no greater reason than your typical teenage dissatisfaction and self-obsessed malaise.
Chalamet impresses (though doesn’t quite floor as he did for Guadagnino), but it is Carell who carries much of the water. The film is based on memoirs by both men (this is one of those Based On A True Story movies that typically gather this time of year), though the pivot is almost always to David’s perspective. As such, the story unfolds as a parent’s worst nightmare; unanswered phone calls and aimless driving in search of (and in fear of) the worst. David works from home as a freelance journalist. He is separated from Nic’s mother (Amy Ryan), but has built an idyllic new life with artist Karen (Maura Tierney). Nic’s inexplicable addiction is the fly in the ointment of their perfect life.
Carell plays it in tune with van Groeningen’s overall approach; conservatively. His David has been there and done that, but has also matured, has come to know his limits and has grown comfortable within them. The film opens in a confusing, time-hopping collage, during which we find David sharing a joint with Nic, but interjecting his two cents about responsibility and restraint. His defining characteristic is his unbridled love for his son, which will come to be shaded with frustration and helplessness as Nic lapses and relapses with crystal meth and heroin.
Relapse is part of recovery, David is told; a truism he takes a dim view of. But he persists with Nic because of his love for his beautiful boy. There are scattered moments of sense-memory time cutting, in which an encounter with Nic sends David zip-wiring back in time to some glazed and perfect moment with his younger, purer prodigy. More often, however, the film is set to cycle, presenting the flat repetition of life. Nic struggles, Nic slips, Nic apologises and vows to make amends. Every go around takes a little bit more away from David. And us.
This is an earnest film about a serious problem, both on an intimate, personal level and of epidemic proportions across the United States. On those terms it holds the moral high ground firmly. But for two solid hours, it lectures. It berates. It wags the JUST SAY NO finger at you. I’m not an advocate for drug use. But Beautiful Boy bludgeoned me with its hectoring position, rendered oddly ethereal thanks to van Groeningen’s reluctance to get down and dirty with the subject.
Imagine if John Lewis made public information films. That’s the protective blanket of tempered safety van Groeningen’s direction aspires to. The film is too neat and tasteful. The rigidity of its morals clash with the ambiguities of addiction. The old square peg, round hole routine. The most fascinating conundrum of the film is why Nic chooses such self-detonation, but the character’s words to articulate that there is no reason come off as bratty and entitled because the view is otherwise so narrow. Meanwhile, van Groeningen’s mixtape soundtrack exemplifies his good taste (Mogwai, Sigur Rós, Bowie, Massive Attack), but is also incredibly distracting and he becomes prone to editing his action as though Beautiful Boy were a miserable yet conventionally pretty music video. A Hallmark Drug Movie.
Not everything needs to be as fizzing and caustic as the Safdie Brothers’ brilliant Heaven Knows What, for instance. We can have successful films that deal with this subject that don’t exhibit the raw energy of a narcotic high, but Beautiful Boy is so self-consciously buttoned down that is becomes anaemic, listless, repetitive and, I’m sorry, boring.
Ultimately, it feels like there are two goals here. 1) get some nominations for statuettes while the getting’s good and 2) make audiences feel pummeled. But gently. Heartfelt it may be. Well intentioned? Absolutely. But this sentimental piledriver will ruin your day. Good performances, nice clean and ordered kitchen surfaces, picturesque rockeries, and a bloody awful time. That’s what you’re in for.