Some films are hard to recommend. Not because they’re no good, but because they’re so good at presenting something so harsh and
so upsetting, you almost feel bad for recommending that people should put themselves through watching them. Beautiful Boy is one of those movies. Based on the memoirs of David and Nic Sheff, it’s not only a bitingly raw portrayal of drug addiction, it also depicts a father-son relationship that’s pushed to the limits by a seemingly no-win situation.
Its effectiveness is largely down to Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Nic — one so painfully convincing it’s bound to repeat the awards-season attention the 23-year-old earned last year for Call Me By Your Name. His Nic is vulnerably brittle but ferociously independent, who for all his apparent old-head-on-young-shoulders savvy, can’t resist the acutely escapist lure of crystal meth, or the self-destructive descent it sends him tumbling down into. In one scene he goes from cocky to pleading to self-aware to raging with all the effortlessness of a young De Niro. It’s astonishing, but only on reflection, because in the moment you’re absorbed by his sheer naturalism.
An impressively intimate drama.
Which gives Steve Carell, greying and ‘serious-film’ bearded, arguably the film’s toughest job as his father, David. Not in terms of the role, but in holding his own against Chalamet — a task he pulls off with aplomb. While the perspective shifts between father and son, it is David’s view which dominates: one primarily of confusion and frustration — when told that relapse is part of recovery, he splutters, “That’s like saying crashing is part of pilot training” — and some brutal self-examination.
Here Carell is aided by Belgian director Felix van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown), who fractures the narrative timeline, haunting David with sudden flashbacks to happier times — listening to Nirvana with young Nic, or taking him surfing — whenever his present serves up a fresh Nic-related trauma. It’s an effective device, accentuating David’s ‘where did I go wrong?’ agonising, which is most acute when we see the pair sharing a spliff, the father warning his son to “just be careful”.
The father-son focus does have a problem, however. The women in Nic and David’s lives are sidelined, lumbering Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan with thankless minor roles as Nic’s stepmum and mum, respectively — the former offering mostly passive support, the latter as something of a blame receptacle. While each is given a moment to shine, they still feel underwritten in an otherwise impressively intimate drama which dares to portray the very limits of parental love.