Combining memoirs from David and Nic Sheff, a father-son duo who both reflected on Nic Sheff’s addiction to crystal meth and heroin, Beautiful Boy is about as pedigreed as films come. Starring Steve Carell, long since transitioned to Dramatic Actor, as David Sheff and breakout phenom Timothee Chalamet as Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy is the English-language debut of Oscar-nominated Belgian director Felix Van Groenigen. The Women Given Too Little To Do are played by Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan, and the younger Nic is played by one of the It kids (Jack Dylan Grazer). And it’s a family drama AND an addiction drama, like slice-of-life misery porn. With so much going for it, Beautiful Boy ought to be the most moving, affecting drama of the year, but really all these pieces come together to make a film that is perfectly fine.
Timothee Chalamet and Steve Carell are great. Their performances are the entire reason to watch the film. In fact, without them, Beautiful Boy would probably be unwatchable. They are terrific, but everything around them ranges from mediocre to outright baffling, and the time structure of the story seriously challenges your ability to invest because it keeps jumping around and even interrupting itself. There are flashbacks within flashbacks—never a good sign. I don’t think even one scene plays out in a consistent timeline, so frequent are the flashbacks and cross-cutting narratives. It’s fine to tell a dual narrative and that would, naturally, invite some cross-cutting, but Beautiful Boy skips around so much it becomes hard to follow, and being confusing on top of depressing makes for a tougher watch than necessary.
The film follows David and Nic over the course of years as Nic struggles through his addiction, and it jumps back and forth from David’s memories of Nic as a generally happy and engaging kid to grown Nic sinking further and further into drugs. David, a journalist, at first attempts to get ahead of Nic’s addiction by researching it so deeply he actually tries meth himself. Eventually, though, he must accept that he cannot fix Nic, and Carell brings quiet grief and devastation to the moment when David has to cut Nic off and then wait and see if his son survives.
Nic, however, remains something of a cipher. Chalamet has the ability to transmit great emotion through his body, so you FEEL every bit of Nic’s suffering and angst, you just don’t get much insight into it. Despite working off Nic Sheff’s memoir, Tweak, the film leans more heavily on David Sheff’s book (from which it also takes its title), which gives us good insight into David but short-changes Nic’s side of the story. And it does not help that Nic’s path to addiction is chopped up in minute increments throughout the film. We don’t get as much consistent time with Nic, which makes him harder to parse, and if it wasn’t for Chalamet transmitting his deepening distress, Nic wouldn’t be a bearable character.
Besides the bizarre editing, the music selection is WILD. Not only is it a VERY wide selection of songs, but they’re used in unusual, even off-putting, places, and they’re so noticeable it gets distracting. With the editing and the music, it feels like Van Groenigen doesn’t trust the material to be interesting and so is piling on the gimmicks. The result, though, is that it makes the material less interesting because we can’t really connect with the characters as their entire emotional journey is happening out of sequence. And not even out of sequence in a logical way, it’s more like watching the story unfold in a temporal rift where it’s all happening at once and you can’t tell how any of it connects. It is only by the grace of Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet that Beautiful Boy works at all. Without them, this film is a mess. (Lainey: Ben is Back is a similar story, starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, mother and son. Between the two of them, Ben is Back, in my opinion, is the stronger entry.)