For whatever reason, the topic of addiction is rarely dealt with in film. Perhaps it is a theme too close to home for many, or a debate most may feel they cannot give enough justice; but for those willing to tackle such a hefty subject, the results are often pretty impressive. Directed by Felix Van Groeningen, Beautiful Boy follows in this vein, presenting the harsh realities of a harrowing true story that we are painfully reminded has still not reached a definite positive conclusion. As moving as recent A Star is Born and as gritty as Requiem for A Dream, Beautiful Boy is in equal parts a modern and timeless treatment of such sensitive subject matter.
Based on the memoirs of father and son David and Nic Sheff (played by Steve Carrell and Timothee Chalamet), Beautiful Boy opens on an instantly poignant note, with David desperately begging for some professional help to come to terms with his son’s crippling drug addiction. We then plummet back a few years, steadily witnessing Nic’s descent from a carefree child to a seriously suffering young adult first-hand. Initially, the film’s reliance on flashbacks feels a little heavy-handed. But just as we start to question whether we’ve seen one too many touching montages, it starts to become clear that the structure could not be fitting. This is not a linear story, nor is Nic’s hope of recovery straightforward, and at no point does Van Groeningen ever hold back from this in the way he frames the events. Such a structure may be disorienting, but there is simply no means more authentic for such a rough-edged tale.
At the film’s very core are a number of powerhouse performances. As struggling father David, Steve Carrell delivers what is arguably a career best turn. At all times he steers clear from so many of the obvious tropes that such a character could fall into, never veering towards an archetypal good guy figure. In fact, he is his most impressive in the moments when he reflects on his decisions as a father, showing regret and even remorse for some of the choices made raising Nic. Most impressive of all is the way he makes us question David’s behaviour, forcing us to empathise but never sympathise with his decisions, particularly when he seems to turn his back on Nic in his darkest time of need. Carrell is worlds away from his comedic comfort zone, but it’s impossible to tell, and it is essentially guaranteed that he’ll continue to receive praise as awards season creeps up.
Opposite Carrell is rising star Timothee Chalamet. Here, he builds on his massive leap to fame in Call Me By Your Name and then some, with what is one of the most sophisticated performances delivered by a young actor in a very long time. He gets completely under the skin of Nic, every twitch, tear and tantrum encapsulating the complexities of such a confused teen. Few actors are able to lay all their cards on the table with such subtlety, but Chalamet does exactly that, effortlessly conveying Nic’s youthful vulnerability and naivety. He is practically guaranteed a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and with the way things are currently playing out, it would probably be an injustice if he didn’t win the damn thing.
A film like this could easily become overbearing. Yes, Van Groeningen hammers home his message quite hard, but he does so with great skill as the film never veers towards sentimentality or condemning anyone involved – David is never blamed for his son’s struggle, Nic is never belittled for his addiction. Rather, Beautiful Boy offers no solution to Nic’s disease. Not only is this two actors at their very finest, and awards bait at its best, this is real life at its very harshest, concluding on the vital note that some problems will never have easy solutions.
Beautiful Boy (2018), directed by Felix Van Groeningen, played as part of this year’s London Film Festival and will be released in the UK on the 18th January 2019 via StudioCanal.