One of the most tonally off-putting and frustrating depictions of a family attempting to work through, with, and around the addiction issues of a loved one, Beautiful Boy is a well intentioned, but altogether too earnest, hollow, and bafflingly assembled melodrama that plays more like a parody of an after school special than a serious drama. Marred throughout by a bizarre sense of style and dodgy directorial choices, Beautiful Boy wants so desperately and shamelessly to put viewers through an emotional spin cycle that it straight up forgets to make any logical, performative, or narrative sense. Considering that Beautiful Boy is based on a true story – spun off from the separate memoirs penned by a father and son who lived through something similar – the final results feel like a slap across the face of anyone trying to cope with similarly delicate and fraught feelings.
Freelance writer David Sheff (Steve Carell) can only watch in horror as his oldest son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet), struggles with a crippling addiction to crystal meth. Over the years, David and his new wife, Karen (Maura Tierney), are put through the emotional rollercoaster of Nic disappearing for months on end, returning with promises that he’ll get clean, and then having their trust trampled on because addicts lie like it’s their day job. Nic’s addiction issues were one of the things that led to the dissolution of David’s first marriage (to Amy Ryan’s estranged mother character). If David doesn’t want the same to happen with Karen and his considerably younger sons, he might have to make the hard decision of excommunicating Nic from the family. But before David gives up on Nic for good, the writer is determined to figure out why his son’s addictions are so powerful and what could’ve caused them in the first place.
Beautiful Boy is directed and co-written by Felix Van Groeningen, a talented Belgian filmmaker making his English language debut. While previous Van Groeningen efforts like 2012’s emotionally devastating The Broken Circle Breakdown and 2009’s look at familial alcoholism, The Misfortunates, were stunning directorial achievements that boasted strong authorial voices, Beautiful Boy is the type of atonal trainwreck that feels like it’s been pieced together via a Deep Dream generator. Darting all over the place and building little tangible emotion or momentum, Beautiful Boy is a film that’s more out of control than the flawed character Van Groeningen and co-writer Luke Davies (Lion, Life) placed at the centre of the narrative maelstrom. It would almost be an example of an experimental film if it wasn’t so resolutely hokey and preachy.
It takes only minutes to realize that something’s severely off about Beautiful Boy. Van Groeningen’s direction is curiously limp and flat, leaning heavily on his actors to deliver any and all dramatic punctuation, which is its own terrible decision that I’ll talk about in a moment. The cinematography is bland in the way that dozens of made for television family dramas from the 1980s looked uninspired and drab. This sanitized and neatly scrubbed action is set to an annoying, overbearing, and thoroughly out of place musical score that would be more at home in a film about serial killers than a movie about addictions and crumbling families. Similarly, the film is packed with pop songs that serve no purpose or function other than to distract. On a technical level, Van Groeningen does everything absolutely wrong. He’s such a non-presence in his own film that he might as well have stayed home.
Van Groeningen and Davies’ screenplay keeps shifting back and forth in time with little rhyme or reason. It’s the kind of overthought stitching together of two separate points of inspiration – David’s memoir of the same name and Nic’s take on events in his tell-all Tweak – that the writers hope will come together in the editing room once all the footage has been shot. Not only does Beautiful Boy’s time shifting gambit never come together, but it destroys any sense of empathy one could have for this family. We know how hard things get, and we know exactly how these people are attempting to cope with such a fraught situation, but there’s no escalation. There’s no arc to latch onto. Beautiful Boy isn’t an emotional journey, but rather a pretentious, perplexing clip show made up of a bunch of fence swinging, unsubtle high spots slapped together seemingly at random. Each individual moment might hold a kernel of emotional truth, but before such a seed can be nurtured and built upon, Van Groeningen just smash cuts to whatever overbearing scene was next up in the editing bay. The way Beautiful Boy has been hastily assembled with little regard for the actual intricacies of human emotion is beyond the pale.
The horrific, on-the-nose dialogue is as inorganic as a Big Mac (especially a moment where someone talks solemnly about “the sheer number of drugs” in Nic’s system, which is one of the most unintentionally hilarious and wooden moments in any film this year), and no amount of talented actors would’ve been able to save Van Groeningen’s already hobbled material. Making matters worse, everyone here with the exception of Linney – who skates by relatively unscathed because she has almost nothing at all to do – is horrifically miscast and badly directed.
It’s staggering to think that established pros like the continually branching Carell and up-and-coming superstar Chalamet would be out of their element, but Beautiful Boy couldn’t find two worse choices of leads. Carell appears directionless, struggling to find any kind of emotional anchor for David, and delivering a performance that’s indistinguishable from most of his comedic or tragicomic roles that preceded it. On the other hand, Chalamet never gets a handle on Nic’s fraught internal conflict between insecurity and defiance, settling instead for a twitchy (which is somewhat understandable thanks to Nic’s go-to choice of drug), borderline hammy caricature of an addict. Chalamet is all sizzle and no steak here. But if they’re off, the less said about Ryan’s aggrandizing and somewhat insulting portrait of a fed up mother, the better. She’s downright offensively written in a one-sided fashion, and the actress has no choice but to go along with it. Again, a lot of this probably isn’t the fault of the performers, and more of the blame has to be laid at Van Groeningen’s already swamped feet.
There’s precisely one scene in Beautiful Boy where everything works and Carell and Chalamet feel up to the task of saving Van Groeningen’s entire production. It’s the narratively later of two scenes that take place in a small town diner, where Nic and David finally confront each other and fall out. It’s a relatively lengthy scene, but one can almost watch as the actors come to life in each others’ presence. It’s absolutely electrifying, and in that one scene, more is said about these characters, their fears, and their flaws than the entire rest of the film put together. It’s an island of excellence set adrift amid a sea of misguided choices.
That’s also the only scene where Beautiful Boy doesn’t feel like a hollow and clinical look at addiction. Almost every sequence that talks about Nic’s struggles comes loaded with the kind of hokey, middle American sentiment that permeates ineffective and barely educational public service announcements. Van Groeningen and Davies’ approach to an addiction narrative isn’t original to begin with, but it curiously prefers to establish its own cultural self-importance over creating something that’s easily bought into by viewers. As someone who has seen all too well in his own family what addiction can do (and to the families of close friends who similarly struggle), there are definitely superficial elements to Beautiful Boy that ring true, but overall the events depicted here are approached from too great of a distance. It’s a film that’s almost afraid to get its hands dirty, which is curious when said film includes a gratuitous drug fuelled sex scene and a moment where a confused father snorts meth in an effort to understand his kid better. Such moments are handled like they’re not a big deal; shunted aside to get to the next grandstanding bit of moralizing. Films about addiction and the tricky recovery process need to have a beating heart at their centre. Beautiful Boy is soulless to the point of being robotic.
If anything good came from Beautiful Boy, it’s that it made me want to seek out the memoirs the script took inspiration from. I’m happy to say that both accounts of the same story are memorable, moving, and exceptionally written in ways that make Van Groeningen’s crack at the same material seem even more vexing in hindsight. Those two volumes of personal scholarship and emotional honesty are infinitely more valuable than this single film. Just take the time and read the books, instead. You might learn how to become a better, more empathetic person from the books. All you’ll learn from this film is that “drugs are bad, m’kay.”
Beautiful Boy opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday, October 19, 2018. It expands to Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Halifax, Victoria, and Montreal (English and French) on October 26.
Check out the trailer for Beautiful Boy:
This film was screened as part of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.