Stirring performances by Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell largely make up for the film’s wobbly pacing
Photos: Amazon Studios
At a time when biopics of everyone from Neil Armstrong to Freddie Mercury are taking over the silver screen, Beautiful Boy shows that true-life dramas can be powerful without much spectacle.
In fact, the new movie is almost the opposite of a spectacle. Based on two memoirs (by David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff), the movie takes a very grim and detailed look at teenage Nic’s downward spiral into drug addiction. We get a rare, inside perspective of the experience through the father-son relationship of David (Steve Carell) and Nic (Timothée Chalamet). Once uncommonly tight and sweet, their bond is now fractured by mistrust. As Nic starts sneaking out for more crystal meth and acting out in anger, David begins questioning who the beautiful son he’s loved has become.
We hear the questions of “who are you” and “why do you do it” come out of David’s mouth a lot, to which Nic can only reply that he just does not know. That, however frustrating it may be, is often the reality of why we become addicted to things we know are not good for us. From the opening scene of David seeking a doctor’s advice about his son, the movie subtly reminds us that the more important and difficult thing we should ask when it comes to addiction is what we can do, or how we can help those we love who are trapped in this quite impenetrable pain.
Through plenty of flashbacks to different periods of Nic’s boyhood with his father, we see how drug addiction makes little sense. David tries to figure out if there was a part of Nic’s life that he missed and could point to this change he cannot understand. He recalls times like taking Nic surfing or their regular trips to the diner, activities that they do again in the present, with the bigger family of David’s new wife and their own kids.
The intermittent shuffling between past and present gets confusing much of the time. It also weighs down the movie’s development, making the trajectory unclear. True, addiction tends not to follow a clear path at all. But the emotional exhaustion of watching Nic tussle back and forth between relapse and recovery may not be something everyone can handle.
What help us keep our grip on the uneven pacing structurally and emotionally, are the excellent performances by Chalamet and Carell. After his heart-wrenching breakout role in Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet delivers another Oscar-worthy performance as a young man who never really sheds his boyish sweetness and vulnerability in all his breaks of aggression. He breaks our hearts with each downward quiver of his brow, and asks us to hope again with him whenever he smiles. Though less consistent, Carell’s performance draws out David’s beautiful love for his son, which makes his attempts and failures to help Nic all the more poignant.
When a movie delves deep into a social taboo like Beautiful Boy does, it treads the fine moral line between damning it and romanticising it. By placing character and relationships at the centre, Beautiful Boy chronicles the rollercoaster ride of addiction like a Sheff family documentary. Each time we see Nic’s eyes twinkle against the flame he uses to cook crystal meth, our heart aches for him. Even as Chalamet runs his hand through his beautifully messy curls and lets out a satisfied breath, there is no glamour in depending on a small glass-like substance to go on.
Chalamet had remarked that the movie is “not the most commercial of movies,” and that difference is what etches the story deep and long in our minds.
The too-real and important navigation of addiction’s effects on the individual and their loved ones makes Beautiful Boy worth watching through its heaviness.
Beautiful Boy is out exclusively in Golden Village cinemas now (from 25 October).