Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) is addicted to crystal meth and his concerned, loving father David (Steve Carell) is willing to do whatever it takes to help him out, even if it means neglecting his other two kids as well as Nic’s stepmother Karen (Maura Tierney), but with Nic continually falling off the wagon, always making empty promises as his addiction takes over his father’s life, will David’s golden boy actually stick to his promises and clean up his act or is his predicament completely hopeless?
Beautiful Boy is essentially about how a young addict falls to his lowest point while using drugs, he reaches out for his father’s help, he promises that he will do better, it actually seems as though he’s finally kicked it for a time, but then he uses again and the horrible cycle repeats itself. And that’s what happens for the entire duration of the film, beginning to end. While there is a certain logic in this, showing that incredibly vicious cycle from which there’s seemingly no escape, this ultimately proves to be a major hindrance because it makes the film unavoidably repetitive, one note and eventually quite tiring. As soon as Nic promises that he’s done for good, you just know that he’ll succeed for a while and then fall back into the habit and in this sense, Beautiful Boy is not telling us anything that we don’t already know and the entire affair is very basic and unoriginal – rather paint-by-numbers.
Rather than giving us a unique, revolutionary or even intriguing story, Beautiful Boy is a feature length after school special: we have the promising young lad who falls into a bad habit, there are those empty promises, the rise, the fall, the impact he has on his family, the crying, the mood swings, and a constant feeling of being lectured on just how bad drugs are and why you shouldn’t do them, informative lessons and explanatory brain scans from a doctor included.
To sum it up in those immortal four words: “Drugs are bad, mkaaaaaay?” Seriously, that’s the whole film.
But to its credit, the cyclical nature of the film makes us feel as if we ourselves are trapped in that depressing, endless loop and we are able to feel the futility of trying to give it all up, as well as also feeling hopeful when things start to go well. There’s also a particularly interesting moment when it’s revealed that actually curing a crystal meth addiction is next to impossible, with success rates of rehab centres in the single digit percentages. Alongside all of the obvious “don’t do drugs” PSAs, this was actually a new piece of information for me and the film may have benefited from exploring that avenue a little more.
Of the cast, it’s only really Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet who have anything relatively interesting to contribute as most of the others fade into the background. Steve Carell puts in a good dramatic turn and he effectively shows us both the care that he feels for his son, the sadness when things look grim, and the fear and confusion he feels when he struggles to decide just what to do about Nic. Carell’s performance is decent but honestly, the stock “Dad” role probably could’ve been played by anyone. As for Chalamet, this is actually the best I’ve seen from him in all honesty (not an Elio fan!) as he makes Nic appear quite likeable and charismatic on his good days, but also unpredictable, moody, thoughtless, scared and despondent during other scenes. Though it’s not saying much, Nic is the most interesting character and Chalamet puts in a mature and wholehearted performance. Maura Tierney also appears as David’s wife/Nic’s stepmother Karen but it’s a completely thankless, uninteresting role and Tierney isn’t given enough of a chance to show what she can do.
Felix van Groeningen’s direction is flawed because he keeps the film moving at the same monotonous, one-note level throughout and scenes which should’ve given the film some drama or tension are limp and don’t provide the necessary dramatic/emotional stakes for the film; it’s only a two hour film but due to the repetitive, dull and uneventful storyline, it feels quite a bit longer. The film is also incredibly uncertain of just when it should end and when the narrative continually alternates between the past and the present, the film gets messy and incoherent – van Groeningen doesn’t have a good enough handle on the back-and-forth between the two time periods.
As for the writing, the screenplay from van Groeningen and Luke Davies is alright but there are those unavoidable sappy moments in there, the story definitely isn’t as imaginative or original as it could’ve been and, as mentioned before, the whole thing is telling us what we already know: drugs are bad, users make promises they can’t keep and families fall apart.