(USA, 120 min.)
Dir. Felix van Groeningen, Writ. Luke Davies, Felix van Groeningen
Starring: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Kaitlyn Dever
Steve Carell wants an Oscar. Timothée Chalamet deserves one.
That difference lends itself nicely to the father/son dynamic of Beautiful Boy, the harrowing adaptation of the he said/he said companion memoirs Beautiful Boy by David Sheff and Tweak by Nic Sheff. Carell plays father David while Chalamet attacks the part of the junior Sheff as Beautiful Boy bracingly realizes the destructive hell that drug addictions wreaks upon a family. As David tries to understand and confront Nic’s addiction to crystal meth, the stiff no-nonsense patriarch is simply outmatched by the explosive, unpredictable ball of emotional energy contained in the younger actor’s nimble body. Beautiful Boy is proof that Chalamet is here to stay. He's a natural star and a great actor.
Directed and co-written by Belgian director Felix van Groeningen, who channeled the fragmentation of a family with such devastating emotion and dexterity in the Oscar nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown, along with Lion writer/director Luke Davies assisting with the adaptation, Beautiful Boy puts audiences through the cycle of hope and hopelessness the Sheff family experienced during Nic’s on-and-off recovery. While the adaptation draws mostly from David's Beautiful Boy with at least one major scene involving Nic's girlfriend drawn from Tweak, the film gives equal weight to both perspectives and comparable screen time to co-leads Carell and Chalamet. As the story weaves through the years of Nic’s addiction to meth and his family’s effort to set him sober, van Groeningen uses the same shattered, non-linear structure of The Broken Circle Breakdown. Beautiful Boy ping pongs between periods as it depicts the family through various stages of Nic’s addiction.
The timeframes of the scenes are often loosely perceptible as stages of addiction and recovery blur. Each lapse and stab at hope is a scene that David, his wife Karen (Maura Tierney), and Nic’s mother, Vicki (Amy Ryan) have seen before. Tierney and Ryan are unfortunately underused in the mom roles, but each actress finds at least one great scene to lend a powerful female voice to the film. One of Beautiful Boy’s most powerful moments comes when Karen chases after Nic in a mini-van, desperately trying to catch him and help however she can. Another witnesses Vicki’s painful refusal to accept David’s advice that the best thing they can do for their son is to let go of him.
Timmée acts the hell out of his part, channeling an astonishingly mature range and depth of pain into his performance as the young man struggling with addiction. His performance evokes the memory of a young Marlon Brando with its dramatic presence, or more likely Timothy Hutton’s inquisitive and Oscar-winning turn in Ordinary People to which Beautiful Boy is bound to draw comparison with its emotional and challenging portrait of a broken family. It’s proof that his breakthrough role in Call Me By Your Name was no fluke. His latest lead role is a master class in natural, nuanced drama to which up-and-comers should aspire.
Chalamet looks especially strong in comparison to Carell, whose stilted and forced performance provides an unexpected weak link. Carell is back in the hunt for an Oscar after Foxcatcher and Battle of the Sexes, but the material’s not the right fit. Even as a comedian, Carell is a bit of a one trick pony and his range as a dramatic actor is even more limited. David Sheff just seems bored, blank, or constipated when Beautiful Boy calls on him to be desperate, distraught, and determined as Nic’s addiction switches the family dynamic on a dime. Beautiful Boy often cuts to Carell’s vacant reaction shots when the other performers seem to be giving their all in the shot’s reverse. But perhaps it’s for the best that Chalamet pulls audiences in strongest.
Beautiful Boy is not an easy film to watch, but the unflinching difficulty of the same echoes through the Sheffs’ books. The father and son want people to learn and grow by sharing their experiences, and the film furthers the conversation to de-stigmatize addiction and to create welcome, empathetic environments for recovery so addicts and their loved ones can better understand the illness that can cripple a family. There are long scenes of heartache in rehab centres, doctors’ offices, and hospitals. If there’s one undeniable success of Beautiful Boy beyond Chalamet’s performance, it’s the raw frankness with which van Groeningen portrays addiction. It has the power to tear families apart. One leaves the film moved, hoping to encounter this beast only in the movies and grateful for the family that will always lend support.
Beautiful Boy opens in Toronto on Oct. 19 and expands Oct. 26.