‘Beautiful Boy’ struggles to encapsulate family ties, addiction

The melodrama captures the cycle of drug dependency and familial strain without having much to say about them.

This review contains spoilers for “Beautiful Boy.”

This awards season, there are a lot of new films about the experience of loving someone with an addiction. Explorations of the subject are at the core of the hit “A Star is Born,” upcoming “Ben is Back” and new melodrama, “Beautiful Boy,” creating a unique series of dilemmas for each. How will filmmakers create a genuine, measured portrait of disease and substance abuse, while also portraying fully realized characters and distinguishing their work to fatigued end-of-the-year moviegoers? Throughout “Beautiful Boy,” director Felix van Groeningen (“The Misunfortunates” and “The Broken Circle Breakdown”) seems to be searching for that balance himself — effectively keeping viewers at arm’s length in the process.

In a departure from many similar films, “Beautiful Boy” doesn’t waste any time before diving straight into the thick of things. We’re quickly introduced to the Sheff family — journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell), his second wife, Karen (Maura Tierney), their two young children and David’s 18-year-old son Nic (Timothée Chalamet). Nic is a crystal meth addict who undergoes a series of recoveries and relapses, while his father splits time between his affluent California home and a rotating set of hospitals, rehab centers and seedy parking lots in which Nic has collapsed.

David approaches this crisis with a constant stream of questions —what happened to the child that he raised? Why did he become this way and can he ever be the person that he was again? There are scenes of David with Nic as a younger boy (Jack Dylan Glazer in a charming cameo), but these father-son moments feel too cloyingly generic to make us feel anything deeper about a dynamic that’s meant to be the emotional crux of the story.

Perhaps “Beautiful Boy” has a difficult time figuring out what to do with itself because it had too much material to sift through from the beginning. The film is based on the real David and Nic Sheff‘s accounts of their experiences in two respective memoirs: “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” and “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.” Memoirs and autobiographies have been successfully turned into films many times, but the repetitive growth and regression that takes place in a real addiction story, coupled with the dual father-son perspective, make for a story that doesn’t translate into a coherent two-hour drama.

Even with multiple memoirs to consult, van Groeningen seems reluctant to give us more than a generic window into who David and Nic are, and how they function as father and son. The film tells us in the opening scene that David is a talented freelancer and an immensely caring father. These baseline character facts give “Beautiful Boy” ample opportunity to explore how his writing ability allows him to process his son’s addiction, or how his guilt over Nic’s struggles impacts his ability to be an attentive parent in his younger kids’ childhoods.

Those themes are ultimately glossed over in favor of extended sequences of Carell moodily staring out of glass windows and delivering trite monologues in a teary, befuddled manner that the film’s repetitive framework doesn’t do any favors. Carell has made notable dramatic turns since his days on “The Office,” but his characteristic deadpan earnesty isn’t the right fit for a story that draws so heavily on David’s sharp perspective.

On the other side of the equation is Nic, who fares slightly better in spite of his absence from entire segments of the film. I will give credit to Chalamet here, who justifies his longevity after being last year’s awards season darling and A24 boy of the month for “Lady Bird” and “Call Me By Your Name” (really, who hasn’t cried to a Sufjan Stevens song in their own home?). With his moody, alternative art and college freshman-level obsession with Charles Bukowski, Nic could easily be played as an insufferably privileged teenager whose drug use was spurred by a hipster distaste for the world.

Thankfully, Chalamet is able to bring out many shades of his character in exchanges that can escalate from childlike pleas for help to jaded, calculated manipulation ploys in minutes. The actor has always brought a strange, enigmatic physicality to his roles, and in “Beautiful Boy,” his long, unwieldy limbs and the intensity of his gazes gives viewers a better look into the progression of Nic’s drug battle than any of the medical jargon-packed into the script.

Nic’s future is ambiguous at the end of the film, but in reality, it is not. An ending card informs the audience that the real Nic Sheff has worked hard to be sober for eight years, and this film and the family’s two memoirs certainly hold him accountable for this accomplishment. Although van Groenigen’s film struggles to make their family’s reckonings with drug crisis into something that reaches past its arthouse aspirations, one can hope that the conversations surrounding these topics lead to art that captures the raw heartache of addiction with a little less melodramatic fumbling.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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