“Relapse is part of the recovery,” a rehab center tells David Sheff (Steve Carell) when he’s told that his meth addict son Nic (Timothée Chalamet) has left their facility. For David, his son’s drug addiction is hell, and hearing that the road to recovery is a cyclical nightmare is not exactly the outcome he hoped for. In Beautiful Boy, David will watch as his son repeatedly hits rock bottom, hope for his rehabilitation, then watch as he once again loses his son to drugs. In Sheff’s book (which Beautiful Boy is based on, alongside Nic’s memoir, Tweak), he worries whether or not his divorce led Nic to drugs, or his own personal experiences with drugs might’ve led to a genetic addiction, or maybe, David smothered his son. With Beautiful Boy however, the problem is a case of emotional smothering, where director Felix van Groeningen – in his first English-language film – drowns his audience in maudlin melodrama, cloying nostalgia, emotional reunions, and on-the-nose needle drops that cause more eye rolls than tears.
Beautiful Boy begins with David Sheff learning about the meth addiction that has stolen his son away. The film then jumps to the past, showing how close David and his son Nic once were, before Nic discovered drugs, then quickly showing how much Nic has changed the further he gets into meth and other ways to numb his pain. Nic used to be a great student and a charming young man, but since discovering meth, Nic has become a fraction of the person he once was. As Nic goes further down his road of destruction, David equally tries to save his son from the depths and rediscover the son he once knew.
In case it wasn’t clear that Nic was once a great kid that has fallen on hard times, David discovers a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned in Nic’s room, or montages fittingly soundtracked to John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” showcase just how wonderful Nic used to be. It’s this type of heavy-handed doubling down on ideas that waters down this heartbreaking story of father and son.
The most egregious case of this comes from horribly obvious music choices throughout the film. To highlight the grandiosity and wonder of childhood, Beautiful Boy uses the sweeping power of Mogwai. When Beautiful Boy wants to show Nic becoming more angsty, he screams along to Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings.” Maybe the worst usage comes from showing Nic at college, which uses Sigur Rós’ “Svefn-g-englar” for its montage, with the song’s dark bridge hitting right when Nic injects meth for the first time. The soundtrack is filled with choices almost too exact, and then hopes that the music will do a majority of the heavy lifting.
This is especially a shame, considering that van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown did an admirable job of blending flashbacks, substance abuse, musical cues and sentimentality. But with Beautiful Boy, van Groeningen relies too heavily on these elements. Van Groeningen does have some solid moments, such as when cross-cuts across time. These moments show David trying not to lose what he already has lost, a feeling that should resonate with anyone who has struggled to regain a love that isn’t there anymore.
While the nature of addiction is a series of repetition, Beautiful Boy also naturally falls into this trap. Adapted by van Groeningen and Luke Davies (Lion), the screenplay understandably can’t avoid becoming a cycle of inevitable outcomes. Van Groeningen and Davies’ screenplay leans heavily on David Sheff’s book, even though it’s the story of Nic that is far more enthralling and agonizing.
Beautiful Boy is affecting however when it relies on the performance of Chalamet and Carell for emotional connection. Much like the end of Call Me By Your Name, Beautiful Boy is tremendous when it focuses on the story that Chalamet can tell with just his facial expressions. With CMBYN, Chalamet was able to almost have a disconnect between his body and face. His body could be nonchalant, while his face could betray how he truly felt. The same is true of his performance in Beautiful Boy, where his playful demeanor can be torn in two quickly by a disappointed glance or distracted desire. The performance is understandably mannered, since most of the time his character is seen under the influence, he’s trying to hide his addiction from his father, yet can’t avoid the tics and nervous movements that come with the territory. Chalamet is still never showy, and gives a performance that again presents him as a staggeringly great actor to watch.
Carell has to match this performance as a father at war with his son and his own paternal instincts. Carell has never played a role this empty of comedy, and while he’s stuck largely playing this one emotion throughout the entire film, he does it quite well. As the most dramatic performance in his career, Carell’s incompetence in dealing with his son’s addiction is powerful and tough to watch at times. Carell might not be as immediately impressive as Chalamet, but the quiet fear underlying his character shows that Carell has what it takes in a more serious role like this. When these two excellent performances are facing off against each other, Beautiful Boy finally runs on all cylinders.
The key to Beautiful Boy’s touching moments aren’t the sorrow of watching someone you love fall over and over again to the nightmare of addiction and hard drugs. It’s in watching love get tested to the point of complete helplessness. Beautiful Boy has its heart in the right place, presenting a shoulder of support to those who have dealt with similar issues, but it’s a shame the film doesn’t trust its great performances to instead go down the same road of addiction, over and over, while forcing unfortunately obvious choices in order to illicit an emotional reaction.