With each new role, the depth, appeal and versatility of Steve Carell continues to impress. In Beautiful Boy, a film about the tragic consequences of drug addiction as touching and unsettling as it is timely, Carell delivers a performance both tender and tough as a distraught father struggling to save his son from self-destruction. Guided by acclaimed Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen and sensitively co-written by the director and Luke Davies, the film is based on matching twin memoirs by writer David Sheff and his son Nic.
Both penned their wrenching memories of what happened with a few varying details, but as parent and child catalogue the events in their family saga about the years of addiction, relapse, rehab and eventual recovery, the differences make an even more valid three-dimensional case. The result of the myriad details is the same: heartbreaking, honest and profoundly truthful, even if flawed by a handful of unfortunate cliches.
BEAUTIFUL BOY ★★★ (3/4 stars)
We never learn why 18-year-old Nic (Timothée Chalamet, living up to his triumphant Oscar-nominated career sendoff in last year’s masterpiece Call Me By Your Name) became hooked on crystal meth, but a kid who started out as a healthy, clean-cut, witty, observant and talented all-American boy from Marin County, California near San Francisco—like so many unfocused teenagers today—began his detour to hell as an innocent experiment.
It turned everything dull and complacent into a Technicolor movie. He wanted more. Involuntarily, his kind, loving, father David (Steve Carell) began an arduous journey to cure Nic, not realizing how little power the usual army of professionals, medical doctors, drug treatment programs and psychiatrists can have against the overwhelming influence of drugs. Giving up all of his healthy, normal and responsible pursuits, Nic stopped writing and drawing and quit the water polo team, substituting every controlled substance on the planet. The more he decreased the dosage, the more he increased the obsession to use.
While Nic perfects the skill of lies and parental manipulation, David struggles with trying to understand him and, finally, the even more daunting task of trying to save him—and the rest of the family—from following him down the rabbit hole. Nic’s mother Vicki (Amy Ryan) tries to help, but her job in Los Angeles and her own personal problems prove to be more than she can handle. Nic’s stepmother Karen (the wonderful Maura Tierney, in another consummate performance) does more to raise him and bring balance and order to the family than anyone else.
She’s the one who finally convinces David that sometimes the only solution is to let go. Detox, forced incarceration in clinics, a continuing determination on David’s part not to give up—nothing works. And the movie follows each step, from hope to the dirtiest flophouse floors in the San Francisco tenderloin, until the viewer begins to feel the wear and tear along with everyone else onscreen.
As obviously well-intentioned as the film is, and as much as I liked it, Beautiful Boy is far from perfect. The constant relapses followed by tears of regret grow tedious, and all of it is accompanied by the film’s worst flaw—one of the most annoying and intrusive musical scores in years that drowns every emotion in musical chaos. Almost every scene is overwhelmed and the dialogue obliterated by decibel-crunching rock and roll, punctuated by ugly electronic humming. At the lowest point of desperation, when the father has lost touch with the son and everything seems hopeless, the sound track floods us with phony emotional treacle playing—wait for it—Perry Como’s unctuous recording of “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof.
The rapport between Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet is dazzling but, in the end, everyone plays it a little too close to the vest, assuring sympathy throughout. You can’t avoid feeling empathy for the characters and the pain they live through—a dilemma shared by so many families in the troubling times we live in. There’s plenty to think about here. It’s too bad Beautiful Boy does so much of the thinking for you.