Combining the memoirs of father and son never quite rewards in the case of Beautiful Boy. The film is the English language debut of Belgian director Felix van Groeningen and takes its story from individual accounts written by David and Nic Sheff, concerning the latter’s battle with drug addiction. Though Van Groeningen’s script, co-written with Luke Davies, does well to capture the true to life frustrations of recovery and relapse, its delivery lacks a needed sense of emotional involvement and feels long at two hours.
If one consistently strong element can just about save the film from lapsing too far, it is yet another sensational turn from Timothée Chalamet, who was cast – unfathomably now – as an unknown actor. Chalamet plays Nic Sheff, a boy raised in a broken home to a young adulthood dominated by crystal meth. Whilst it is never entirely clear what it was that drove Nic to seeking out his first dopamine rush – flashbacks suggest a happy childhood, in spite of his parents’ separation – Chalamet does remarkably well here to capture the mental fragmentation than rapidly followed. His is a performance that shifts from aggression to vulnerability and defiance to desperation in the blink of an eye. When his mentor Spencer (Andre Royo) accuses Nic of allowing his ‘disease’ to speak for him, it is all to easy to imagine a demonic presence lurking behind those hollowed eyes.
Fighting against that internal evil is David Sheff (Steve Carell), the conflicted father torn betwixt hope and hopelessness. It is David we meet first and through him that we learn of Nic’s troubles. In Carell’s eyes lies an alternate personality too but it is the benevolent force of his past self, a figure determined to draw him back into memories of a time before. Throughout the film, neat parallel cuts link the present and past as though they are concurrently occurring, allowing contrasts to strike hard before the camera. Chalamet‘s weight fluctuates across the film – thanks to an extended shooting schedule – and, combined with the indie soundtrack, almost echoes Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in its transgressive scope. Carell is, however, no Ethan Hawke and there is little by way of an anchoring maternal presence. Though the likes of Little Miss Sunshine and Battle of the Sexes prove Carell to have impressive range, here he struggles with the emotional escalation of his character and just falls short of convincing. Amy Ryan barely registers as his estranged wife – Nic’s mother – Vicki.
Perhaps concerned that a conventional approach might warrant accusations of a reliance on formula, Van Groeningen cascades his narrative through a kaleidoscope and often confuses. We zip back and forth in the story, which cycles through a process of rehab, recovery and relapse with distressing, and yet realistic, frequency. While an overarching linchpin follows David’s attempts to understand his son’s plight, through conversations with doctors and fellow users, the principal focus is the will to see Nic survive. If this is a thrust with which viewers can connect, the film will likely work well. Conversely, it is easy to be struck by the sense that Van Groeningen’s lens is paternalistic in outlook and thereafter appreciate concerns that the film too quickly blames Nic for his own issues. A greater insight into his side of the story could have corrected this.
What these flaws boil down to is a film much easier to admire than enjoy. The camerawork is succinct and cinematography strong but little by way of joy and a wealth of gruelling realism. Chalamet is always worth watching, regardless of the material, but his legions of Call Me By My Name fans ought to know that Beautiful Boy is a testing endurance.