Beautiful Boy begins with a plea. The camera remains static on David Sheff (Steve Carell) as he painfully admits that his son is addicted to methamphetamines. But he isn’t there to pour his heart out, or to cry about his emotions—he’s there to learn about his son’s addiction. To understand why this has happened, and, most importantly, to determine how to help him.
The film then goes back to a year prior and introduces us to David’s wife, his two elementary aged children, and his 18-year-old son Nic (Timothee Chalamet). Based off of the paired memoirs by David Sheff and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy tells the real life story of this father and son, who’s close relationship becomes strained as Nic dives further and further into the depths of a drug addiction.
The opening scene and it’s placement in the film is indicative of the somewhat baffling way the rest of this story is told. Director Felix Van Groeningen often plays with time, blending together the present and flashbacks in ways that serve to contrast David and Nic’s affectionate relationship with the strained, toxic relationship that it eventually becomes. At times this method of storytelling is incredibly effective. There’s a scene in which, after not seeing Nic for weeks, David goes to meet him in a coffee shop. It flashes back to their sweet and tender moments there when Nic was younger, only to come back to the present and display a harrowing scene of manipulation and desperation, in which Nic tries to con his father out of money. But, for majority of the film this approach is more confusing than enlightening, as it allows the film to speed through important moments such as Nic’s entire first year of college, whilst also making it difficult to keep track of the movie’s timeline.
Much of the structure in the film mirrors the repetitive cycle of addiction. Nic will go into recovery, relapse, go back into recovery and relapse again repeatedly throughout, with each relapse increasing in intensity. This repetitive nature can at times feel immensely frustrating to watch, but that is the point. Every time Nic relapses, the audience’s anger, fear, and confusion as to why he can’t remain sober matches that of David’s. That is the reality of addiction. It is repetitive in nature, and the film makes it a point to say that relapse is a part of recovery.
In fact, this confusion often stems from Nic himself. His life is seemingly etched in privilege. His parents are divorced, yes. But he grew up in a picturesque house in San Francisco, with a loving father and step-mother, and adorable younger siblings. He has money, a loving family, a beautiful home, and a smart, sharp mind. It’s hard to understand how someone with so much could become so addicted and the movie makes little attempt at answering this question. Nic, at one point, states that when he started using drugs his life went from “black and white to technicolor” and that’s the closest we get to an explanation. It’s frustrating, but it makes sense. Sometimes, addiction is really that painfully simple, and David’s search for an explanation to no avail captures that.
Beautiful Boy truly excels in it’s performances. Steve Carell gives an emotionally grounded performance as the methodical father. David is a journalist, and applies a somewhat restrictive research approach to dealing with his son’s addiction. It is at these moments where Carell is at his best, as logic begins to compete with anguish. Carell’s wife and Nic’s stepmother Karen is played by Maura Tierney. She gives a complex performance as she attempts to navigate her role in this as a stepmother. There’s a scene in which Karen chases Nic in her car until she eventually gives up and breaks down. This moment is one of the emotional highlights of the entire film. Amy Ryan, in a role that is sure to delight fans of The Office, plays David’s ex wife and Nic’s mother Vicki Sheff. Unsurprisingly, her chemistry with Carell is phenomenal as the two struggle with their son’s addiction, often placing false blame on the other at desperate attempts of understanding.
With all that being said, this is Timothee Chalamet’s movie. In this film, Chalamet proves that his breakout roles last year were not flukes. He plays the role with a physical intimacy that pulls the audience in to his current state. Nic is at times incredibly charismatic, intelligent, and earnest and at other times emotionally manipulative. Chalamet plays these altering states perfectly. Much of his performance centers around his body and the way he moves. He has certain ticks about him that are only there when Nic is on drugs. His body shifts uncomfortably and restlessly, almost as if his soul is itching to get out of it. In one scene, Nic attempts to convince David that he is not currently on drugs, but Chalamet’s subtle movements give his character away. He is dazzling, he is compelling, and he is true to the realities of addiction and what it does to the mind and body.
It is these performances that carry the film, because, despite all of this, the film lacks a certain depth. It’s based on both real-life David Sheff and Nic Sheff’s personal memoirs, but the story seems to focus on the effects of Nic’s addiction on David. While that is certainly a story worth giving significant time to, it leaves out some of the harrowing effects of addiction on the addict himself and fails to give us a balanced picture. The gorgeous, picturesque locations and music video-like editing doesn’t allow for a truly raw depiction of addiction. The movie feels too glossy, too shiny for the harsh realities of the topic that it’s depicting and, with that, it fails to do more than simply scratch the surface. It’s a superbly acted and timely film that depicts addiction with an honesty that is commendable. But, it lacks depth and seems too cautious to truly explore some of the more horrific, less easily digestible aspects of addiction.
In the aforementioned coffee shop scene, David, in distress, asks his drugged out son, “Who are you Nic?” to which Nic replies, “This is me, dad, this is who I am.” Beautiful Boy attempts, and at times fails, to explore the way drugs can creep into a person’s soul, taking over their mind and their heart, altering their personality to an almost unrecognizable state. But, in the end, it recognizes a fact of addiction that is the most difficult to bear: desperate attempts at understanding and saving someone caught up by addiction are futile, and sometimes the best thing—the healthy thing—to do is to simply let them go.