There are two perspectives at play in Felix Van Groeningen’s new film, Beautiful Boy, reflecting the fact that two memoirs were adapted into a single tale about the ravages of addiction. The first, and more concrete, story centers on David Sheff (Steve Carell), an author and journalist who’s trying to solve his son’s substance-abuse issues through any means possible. The second is intentionally more elusive and frustrating, following Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet), the object of David’s anxieties, as he descends further and further into a crystal-meth habit.
David Sheff’s book was titled Beautiful Boy; Nic’s was called Tweak (both were published in 2008). Van Groeningen and his co-writer, Luke Davies, have interwoven the memoirs in some interesting (if not entirely successful) ways; they’re looking to present the surrealism of addiction, along with its unsurprising emotional toll. The result is a story about how the bastions of privilege and stability can be rendered inert by the blunt-force power of drug abuse. Nic has the right opportunities, he’s smart and creative, he gets into good schools, and his parents have plenty of resources. Van Groeningen methodically demonstrates how that can count for little in the face of crystal meth, but that’s the only takeaway from Beautiful Boy that felt fresh.
The film begins in medias res, with David asking a doctor for details on what exactly meth use does to the human body; he’s in search of a solution to Nic’s dependence that he knows is vanishingly remote. From there, the film cuts backward and forward in time, never settling into a linear narrative. That choice makes sense, since too many movies try to fit addiction stories into a neat, three-act structure: First comes substance abuse, then rock bottom, then recovery.
Beautiful Boy begins at what seems like rock bottom, but there are plenty more rock bottoms to come, as well as multiple instances of false hope. Nic enters rehab programs that promote high success rates, but those numbers feel mythic at best. Sometimes he returns to stay in David’s gorgeous Bay Area home—a secluded, serene, expensive-looking edifice nestled in the woods—but eventually the family learns he can’t be trusted, no matter what tale he spins. Sometimes Nic is openly defiant and aggressive, other times he’s playful and innocent, but none of his explanations ever fully lines up with the truth. His disease is palpable in every room he’s in, but it takes David a while to fully acknowledge that.
I’ll confess I was much more invested in the father’s side of the story. Carell is a gifted actor, but recent dramatic efforts like Battle of the Sexes and Last Flag Flying were disappointingly one-note; in the former he was all bravado, in the latter he barely spoke above a whisper. David feels like a real person rather than a caricature, even when Carell raises his voice and might remind some viewers of his days as Michael Scott. But David’s cloistered life plays a big part in his journey to understanding that what’s happening to his child can’t be conquered by a good old-fashioned heart-to-heart between father and son.
Chalamet, one of the bright young acting talents in Hollywood today, has a very meaty role on his hands with Nic. He gets to be charismatic one second, monstrous the next; wired with energy, then barely conscious. There’s a mannered edge to his scenes with Carell, as he rants and raves with uncommon lucidity about how he still has a handle on his life. But his physicality is astonishing; Chalamet uses every bit of his wiry, frighteningly thin body to convey his ongoing loss of control. In supporting roles as David’s first and second wives, Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney are excellent but sadly underserved, stuck to the periphery of this never-ending melodrama.
Van Groeningen’s film works best at its most heartless. What David and Nic are enduring is nightmarish, and the director’s approach of abandoning straightforward storytelling is wise, making each new development seem increasingly dire. But even though the narrative has been chopped up, it’s still one that many viewers will have seen before. As the film drags on, the details become punishing and repetitive. Van Groeningen isn’t too curious about what got Nic into drugs, or how he finally pulled out of the spiral. Beautiful Boy largely exists between those two stories, and ends up feeling like a limited, grueling experience.