Somewhere between harsh truth and slick sentiment lies Beautiful Boy, an adaptation of two complementary memoirs about drug addiction—Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, both from 2008—by father and son writers David and Nic Sheff. Still, director Felix Van Groeningen, who also co-wrote the screenplay, commendably sustains the story’s profound sense of irresolution: abuse-rehab-relapse, abuse-rehab-relapse, abuse-rehab-relapse—an endless cycle of teeth-gritted optimism at best, soul-deadening dashed hopes at worst.
David Sheff (Steve Carell) appears first, in a pre-credits sequence in which he interviews a doctor about the causes of addiction and how they relate to his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet), who’s spiraling deeper into drug dependence. A journalist by trade, David is using his reportorial instincts to investigate an “enemy,” as he describes Nic’s habit, that has no concrete form. The film tends toward a similar nebulousness in how it slips between perspectives (from David to Nic and back) and time periods (from the ‘90s, when the story primarily takes place, to the ‘80s, when Nic was a cherubic child), as if it too is accruing facts to be later assembled into a coherent narrative.
This approach gives tremendous weight to the littlest detail—as in the way David and Nic each cap their many father-son hugs by saying, “Everything.” Even without context—which is provided much later in the film—the expression feels innate to the pair, as if they were speaking a secret language. Such specific details, clearly grounded in lived experience, make their bond that much more pronounced. And it only heightens the emotional distress of Nic’s disease as it increases in intensity and harmfulness.
Beautiful Boy is really a story of two addictions—of a son to drugs and of a parent to his child, or at least his ideal version of him. Chalamet, making good on the tremendous promise he showed in Call Me by Your Name, gets the showier role, while Carell tends more toward the blankness of his work in Foxcatcher, minus the sociopathic tinge. That’s an appropriate choice for David since he is, in many ways, a non-person whose sole incentive for living is this “beautiful boy” that he raised. Nic is the guiding light of David’s life, and remains so even as he continually, predictably upends it.
The film is at its best whenever it homes in on this tempestuous father-son dynamic, which reaches a tear-jerking apex with a pleading phone call by Nic that David, finally pushed too far, cuts short with barely-held-together Zen calmness. It’s a scene that should cut especially deep for anyone who’s ever had to turn their back on a loved one. By contrast, the people just outside David and Nic’s sphere often feel like afterthoughts, mere tear-stained window dressing, though Maura Tierney, as David’s second wife and Nic’s stepmother, Karen, makes an effective attempt to wrangle some pathos out of her role when her character chases Nic down after he robs the family home for items to pawn. It’s interesting, however, that the strongest supporting performance comes courtesy of LisaGay Hamilton, making a very brief appearance as a grieving parent in a support group who speaks with severe candor about the destructive, drug-addled child she had to disown.
Van Groeningen locates the heartrending pulse of Beautiful Boy in moments like this. Yet he leans too hard into hand-holding gloss elsewhere, especially when it comes to music. Massive Attack’s “Protection,” Nirvana’s “Dumb,” Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” and Perry Como crooning “Sunrise, Sunset” are just a few of the emphatically on-the-nose needle drops that make the film play like a schmaltz-infused music-video-cum-alarmist-anti-drug-PSA. One could make the argument that the songs are another layer of dialogue between father and son, reflecting generationally specific tastes that clash and occasionally harmonize. In context, however, they act as deadweight that drag the film closer to the mawkish clichés it at other points admirably avoids.