Beautiful Boy, one of this year’s Headline Galas at the London Film Festival, tells the real-life story of David Sheff (Steve Carell), a caring father to his son Nic (Timothée Chalamet) who finds himself falling into the dark abyss of methamphetamine addiction. The movie, based on the best-selling memoirs Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic, delves into the life of a family’s journey through addiction, recovery, relapses and ultimately the prospects of healing.
Despite Nic’s early experimentation with marijuana in his teen years it isn’t until his son starts showing erratic and aggressive behaviour that includes not coming home for several days that David Sheff intervenes. He tries his best to help Nic fight through several rounds of rehabilitation, a variety of programs, and more relapses than he can bear, but their once close relationship suffers from Nic’s addiction.
With the continued support of his second wife, artist Karen (Maura Tierney) and Nic’s biological mother Vicki (Amy Ryan), David seeks out professional help to understand what exactly his son is going through, and explore possible reasons for Nic’s addiction. A successful journalist himself he starts writing about his experience, an activity he once shared with his son.
All the while, David is constantly reliving his memories of the once little boy he raised, the boy he wearily sent off to stay with his mother during the summer, the boy he took surfing. As David tries to reunite the image of the son he lost with the young man in front of him, Nic’s battle with his addiction worsens.
Where Beautiful Boy could easily be too clinical in its approach, or too emotional, it finds a delicate balance that elevates the film to exceed (admittedly high) expectations. It doesn’t dive into the question of how exactly Nic got hooked on a plethora of drugs, culminating in crystal meth, but it does present several reasons as to why the high of the chemical substance held such attraction to the boy. Still, in doing so it never questions the validity of Nic’s addiction or the reasoning behind it, but rather tries to empathize with his internal struggle. It doesn’t overdramatize, and it doesn’t oversaturate the topic, but feels truthful and authentic – undoubtedly due to the influence both David and Nic Sheff had on the production.
Beautiful Boy never puts any blame on either Nic or David, refreshingly so, but shows that addiction is a disease that cannot be fully controlled or cured, and is something a family can struggle with every day. It shows that there will be good days, weeks, months, but there will likely also be worse – one moment Nic is a playful big brother, or graduating college, while the next he finds himself overdosing in New York. Addiction is a continuous battle.
Carell, admittedly best known for his comic performances, easily slips into the role of the silently grieving, terrified father, succumbing to the helplessness of watching his son wither away. He carries the film, at least until Chalamet is ready to take over. But Carell’s character, ultimately, is the audience’s emotional tie, and as he suffers, so do we.
Chalamet starts out as a quiet force, but towards the final act builds momentum before bursting into excellence. His performance is raw, painful, and desperate, and it conveys anger and hopelessness, both of which will leave audiences reeling.
Amy Ryan, as wonderful as she is, sadly does not add much to the plot, which is the movie’s loss and really, no one’s gain. Ryan and Carell only share the screen once, apart from several phone conversations, and despite it being as powerful a moment as can be, is wasted potential.
The true surprise (unsurprisingly so, really) is Maura Tierney, whose silent support and empathy guides us through the movie like a red thread. While continuing to be a doting mother to their own two children, she does not judge or condemn Nic for his demons. In one scene particularly Karen takes full control of the situation and in the process reveals her true strength: unconditional love. Tierney does what she does best – she steals the show.
Beautiful Boy is a film that will take you out of the story at times to reflect upon your own experiences with addiction or with those struggling with it. During a support group meeting a woman shares her own experience with her child’s addiction and, for being such a small moment in the film, it has a tantalizing effect on the audience.
Where Call Me By Your Name gave Timothée Chalamet a first solid platform to prove himself as young, lovelorn Elio, a role which earned him an Academy Award and a BAFTA award nomination, it is Beautiful Boy that allows him to truly display his talent. He’ll be awaiting awards season 2019 in confidence.
Beautiful Boy hits UK cinemas on January 18, 2019.