Films about addiction are tough. They cut deep and are severe to the point of exploitation, and they’re never as raw or honest as Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy. This is an addiction story, but above that, it’s a story about family and the unconditional love borne from such a special, formidable bond.
Based on David and Nic Sheff’s respective memoirs, Beautiful Boy and Tweak, the film depicts their family’s struggle with methamphetamine addiction. Nic (Timothée Chalamet) is the addict, and David (Steve Carell) is the father trying to save him. This two-hander lends an added openness to confronting America’s crisis: addiction affects not only the user, but everyone around them. It doesn’t attempt to solve the crisis either, because it knows all too well that the road to recovery is long and treacherous.
There’s a kaleidoscopic effect to the narrative, evoking the dreamscape editing of Jean Marc Vallee’s Big Little Lies or Sharp Objects. Present day events are interspersed with flashbacks to Nic’s childhood: a scream-a-thon to Nirvana in the car, a reluctant farewell at the airport, a moment of panic in the crashing waves.
It works in tandem with the emotional arc at play — though it’s less of an arc and more of a circle. Addiction is a punishing cycle, and David is forced to reconcile with the notion that relapse is a part of recovery. In this interweaving narrative, David’s unconditional love for Nic is illuminated — he’s always been worried about him, the stakes are just higher, the dangers more potent. For David, he feels a duty to protect Nic, but the only way to protect Nic is to let him go.
No one is under the fire of blame, not Nic or David or anyone. Great care is taken to emphasise that addiction is a disease. Nic has a “big black hole” in him, he says, and drugs are the temporary cure. While the film tracks Nic’s entire life, there’s never an attempt to pinpoint an instigating moment. A tender scene sees David and Nic share a joint, and while some may see a giant red flag, others will see the enduring strength of their relationship. In Nic’s formative years, their exchanges are warm and hopeful, then as addiction takes Nic hostage, they become acrid and vicious.
The moments David and Nic share are invigorating, anchored by extraordinary work from Carell and Chalamet. By nature, Carell has to be subtle as the strong-willed father slowly coming undone. His quixotic ideals give way to melancholic acceptance. It’s as if he’s going through the stages of grief while Nic is still alive, because his son, now desperate and pugnacious, all bloodshot eyes and stained teeth, is beyond recognition.
Chalamet’s performance as Nic is a testament to his striking versatility. Gone is the charged introspection of Elio, where overwhelming desire and heartbreak are conveyed solely through the eyes and lips until they can no longer be contained, relayed through tears. Nic is sheer power — a devastating kind of power in all senses of the word. He’s an earthquake packed into Chalamet’s lanky frame, his tremors felt through your bones. But his performance is anchored by sensitivity. In a rare frame of stillness, Nic is drained, head resting in his folded arms on a diner table, and in that moment, you remember this boy who’s going through hell is just a kid.
A questionable soundtrack threatens to undercut the film, but under Felix Van Groeningen’s empathetic direction, Beautiful Boy captures the exhaustive extremities of addiction with heartfelt compassion. Beautiful Boy eschews tired cliches for authenticity, and so its bitter truths are heard. Whenever Chalamet is asked about the difficulty of taking on this role, he is quick to divert his answer to the drug addiction crisis that is afflicting America. For this film is bigger than family, drugs, or Timothée’s weight. It’s everything.