The story of Beautiful Boy is largely nestled within the picturesque rustic home of David Sheff (Steve Carell), writer for The New York Times; here, even the tree trunks are painted in brights. Behind this lies an atmospheric soundtrack of Sigur Rós and John Lennon, weaving bits of David’s past with his future. All of it comes together to paint a sickly sweet portrait of a father/son duo. Aesthetically, it’s warm, cozy and most importantly familiar, igniting a sense of serene nostalgia. In fact, it’s downright beautiful and in complete contrast with the subject matter of the film.
David’s son, Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet), is the picture of promise – a smart, good-hearted kid with the whole world to look forward to. Through David’s eyes, this is evidenced in the form of flashbacks to a younger Nic headbanging along to Nirvana and attempting to speak Klingon. These small moments are done with purpose, leaving Nic’s boyish innocence a lingering thought when you watch him get dragged off of the streets by his father, twitching and half-conscious.
Nic is addicted to crystal meth, and while the question reverberates throughout the movie after seeing the life of privilege he was born into, it’s never explained why. However, it doesn’t need to be. Beautiful Boy seems repetitive at times, only due to Nic’s painful, relentless dance of steps forward and back again being repetitive. There’s no point dissecting Nic’s addiction when we know he’s already being held hostage by it. Instead, the film follows David on a harrowing quest not to understand why but rather just help or, at least determine whether Nic can be helped at all.
As if using Beautiful Boy as a showcase of his acting ability, Chalamet proves himself worthy of being the Academy Award darling he has become known as in the last year. His character is believable to the point of being hard to watch, granting the charismatic Nic warm-hearted moments and overwhelming feelings that humanize him, making him more than his illness. Films about the struggle of addiction are daunting, susceptible to histrionics or dehumanization. Based on a true story of a real father and son, the need for accuracy is especially crucial. Despite this, Nic isn’t painted as an addict – he’s a son, a brother, an innocent child, someone any of us could be, only he’s perpetually plagued by the storm cloud of ennui that he took a troubling path to escape. He manipulates, he lies, he steals, but is it the same boy we saw playing in the sprinklers with his little siblings doing this, or is it his addiction? In his painstaking performance as Nic, Chalamet digs deep to explore this question, and it’s this coupled with the already uncomfortably human role he’s playing that add up to the success of this film.
In comparison, Carell feels restrained at times. The structure of Beautiful Boy is simple, built heavily on the performances of the two leads. Largely centering around Carell, there is something to be desired from David’s desperation, as though it isn’t all there in some scenes.
However, Carell’s performance is by no means a bad one, still managing to pull on the viewer’s heartstrings in all the worst ways (and proving he’s capable of far beyond the likes of Michael Scott). His best moments are when he’s directly playing off Chalamet, whether seen through heartfelt bonding or agonizing confrontations.
This combination of the two is where many of Beautiful Boy’s strengths are found. Beautiful Boy refuses to be a public service announcement. This film is not a haunting warning of danger, it’s not made to gawk at the horrifying other; the highs and lows of Nic’s journey from relapse to recovery and recovery to relapse happen to be at the center of a tragic father/son relationship. It’s the tale of how one boy became a ghost, losing hold of his family and almost nearly drifting away if not for a hand to hold from his father. It’s gritty and rough, but assiduous in this. Managing to avoid the cliches that often come with addiction in film, Beautiful Boy tells an important story.