Film Review: Beautiful Boy

This heavily emotional US drama from Belgian co-writer/director Felix Van Groeningen is built upon the performances of Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, who turn what could have been a hand-wringing exercise in cliché into something rather stronger.

Drawn from memoirs by David Sheff (Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction) and Nic Sheff (Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines), this one’s almost been made several times by directors like Cameron Crowe and with potential stars including Mark Wahlberg, but now you can’t think of anyone else but Steve and Timothée toplining, and both deliver characterisations alternately quiet and fairly gut-wrenching.

In what looks like the early 2000s Carell’s journalist David lives in San Francisco with his second wife Karen (Maura Tierney), their two little kids Jasper (Christian Convery) and Daisy (Oakley Bull), and Nic (Chalamet), the son he had with his first wife Vicki (Amy Ryan, one of Steve’s co-stars on the American The Office). Nic is 17 or so and seems ready to go to college, but when he mysteriously goes missing, David realises that the kid’s been an addict – and a liar – for years.

After several stints in rehab and stretches on the street, Nic eventually gets clean and stays that way for over a year in LA with Vicki, but when he goes to visit David and his family, and realises the damage he’s done, we just know he’s all set to relapse. A sequence where he and his two doting young siblings play in the sun should be lovely and even lyrical but, instead, it’s imbued with dread.

Exploring the complex feelings of guilt and pain suffered by the Dad (and to a lesser extent the Mom and stepmom), this has an awkward moment or two, but they’re compensated for by some powerful scenes. The confrontation between David and a high-as-a-kite Nic at a diner (glimpsed in the trailer) is pretty amazing in its honesty and intensity, and ranks as one of the best things that Carell and Chalamet (from Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird) have ever done.

Director Van Groeningen (in his first fully-English-language, US-produced pic, and working with Aussie co-writer Luke Davies) offers a chronologically-splintered narrative with unreliable editing perhaps influenced TV’s Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects (both from Jean-Marc Vallée), and there’s a fabulous soundtrack surely assembled with help from producer Brad Pitt. Few films could possibly feature tracks from John Lennon (whose classic Beautiful Boy is heard only for a minute), Nirvana, Sigur Rós, Massive Attack, David Bowie – and Perry Como.

And stick around during the closing credits as you’ll hear Nic/Thmothée read Charles Bukowski’s poem Let It Enfold You, which seems a suitable choice for this material – or is it? In fact the late Bukowski really loved being a raging alcoholic and always said that he found his muse while off his face, whereas addiction only ruins Nic’s life.

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