Addiction is an all-encompassing disease. It affects not only who it has taken over, but everyone else who is involved. In Beautiful Boy, Steve Carell as David Sheff begins his emotionally exhausting journey to get his son back. His son Nic, played by Oscar-nominee Timothée Chalamet, goes from being the artistic, kind, and quiet high schooler to a methamphetamine addict, continuously unable to get clean. The drugs and Nic’s usage over time become more intense as the void that needs to be filled inside of Nic grows. David is left to wonder what he did to create this hole inside his son. The film follows David’s desperate endeavor to find any trace left of Nic who repeatedly is, “tak[ing] the edge off of stupid all-day reality” to the point of self-destruction.
Directed by Felix Van Groeningen, the film is based on the real-life story of David Sheff, a freelance writer, and his son Nic, composed in a series of memoirs. The film’s primary focus is on the toll taken on David regarding his son’s addiction, as well as a handful of moments that depict Nic’s insight and struggles. The moments including Nic are not for the faint of heart. There is no glorification of “getting clean” or the demons faced when battling addiction. It is honest, real, and potentially eye-opening to those unaware of the addiction crisis that is present in the country currently, avoiding the trepidation to discuss and display it.
Told through a series of flashbacks and music based montages, Beautiful Boy walks through David Sheffs coping process, virtually grieving the potential loss of a son who is barely alive. Through overdoses, highway-side breakdowns, and countless doctor visits, both Sheff’s are drained. David’s pleas fall on deaf ears. Nic’s life becomes a countdown to the next high, and the fall that occurs once the drugs wear off and the nerve damage begins. As both men struggle to find a better day, Nic’s half-siblings, step-mother, and mother all watch his self-destruction and the “psychological terror” that takes over, as David calls it.
Nic displays an excellent visual regarding emotional manipulation and compulsive lying that often comes when dealing with addiction. He is off getting high when he is supposed to be at his recovery meetings and even finds reasons to jump from city to city when he needs to get away from David’s careful eye. As Nic rapidly falls apart, David goes through his emotional journey, shifting between denial, hope, anger, and desperation. Karen, Nic’s stepmother, tries to be sympathetic, becoming one of the greatest silent supporters, but it leads to him snapping at her, screaming in her face while David watches in horror. At the end of one of David and Nic’s disputes, the son looks at his father teary-eyed. “I’m doing it for you,” Nic utters. David eventually helps Nic come to the conclusion that becoming sober must be done to better and save himself.
Beautiful Boy tries to explain the harsh realities of addiction, but Carell’s and Chalamet’s acting falls short. The aesthetic distance is too great for a film that relies on such an emotional narrative to carry it. Lost in coastline drives and downtown streets of San Francisco, there is little to be praised about the film outside of the light it sheds on the aforementioned drug epidemic taking place currently. There is no tapping into the full potential, as Carell and Chalamet play it safe. Chalamet breaks through to the audience more, especially during his drug usage scenes, but not enough to gain all of the audience’s empathy.
Overall, Beautiful Boy is a good film, it is just not great. The ending is not satisfactory as it feels rushed after the previous 30 minutes felt drawn out. There are highlights to focus on, namely the evidence of the paternal love David has for Nic, but only so much of David and Nic’s story is portrayed well through Carell and Chalamet. It sheds light on the damage done with each injection, but little is fully ever understood as to why Nic fell into this addiction and how ultimately things have progressed. There are many questions to be asked that hopefully are answered in the memoirs written by the Sheffs.
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