Beautiful Boy is a tale of addiction, love and recovery

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Teenager Nicolas Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) seems to have it all: a straight-A student, who is also an actor, artist, athlete and editor of the school newspaper. But, when his addiction to methamphetamine threatens to destroy him, his father is moved to do whatever he can to save his son and family.

Based on the real-life experiences of David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet), Felix Van Groeningen’s English-language debut draws on the accounts detailed in their respective memoirs Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.

The film, which much like Groeningen’s Oscar-nominated Broken Circle Breakdown, employs a non-linear narrative, begins somewhere in the middle of the story. Nic is missing, and David is frantic with worry for his ‘perfect’ son. Two days later, the teenager returns home and is unrecognisable. A shadow of his former self, it quickly becomes apparent that Nic is addicted to methamphetamine, and that he desperately needs help before it’s too late.

Cue a series of frenetic flashbacks and flash-forwards, detailing the crisis-relapse-recovery spiral that Nic is lost in and his father is desperately trying to break. We see Nic as a young boy, being lulled to sleep by his father after nightmares – a tender moment thrown into harsh contrast by scenes of 18-year-old Nicolas, inebriated and impossibly high, screaming profanities at same said father. However, with this time-jump formula being rehashed and repeated regularly throughout the film’s two hours, the audience is left desperately frustrated for something more… something real. 

As those of you who have read the original memoirs will of course be aware, something is missing. Or, more importantly, someone is: Nic’s mother, Vicki Sheff. 

Portrayed by Amy Ryan, the film’s one-note version of Vicki is almost entirely absent, save for a handful of detached lines. Yes, Nic’s parents divorced when he was a young boy but his parents shared joint custody of him and David’s memoir details his own regular contact with and involvement from Vicki throughout Nic’s addiction. Indeed, he explains that the pair shared a “particular quality of worry – acute and visceral” about Nic’s whereabouts and condition on various occasions. They consoled each other, supported each other and leaned on one another, (outside of their respective new spouses), in the joint effort to help their son. So why is it that this very critical dynamic is omitted from the film? 

Likewise, while David’s memoir shows deep gratitude for the balance and stability that he receives from Nic’s stepmother Karen (Maura Tierney), her role in the film is also a thankless one, appearing regularly on scene but (with the exception of a tearful car chase that keeps the audience on tenterhooks and is lifted directly from the memoirs) almost always as David’s silent shadow. You may not be surprised to learn, then, that this film fails the Bechdel test. 

Despite all of this, though, the performances of Carell and Chalamet have been lauded, and rightly so. Carell has a mesmerising ability to capture and portray vulnerability, fear, confusion, anguish and deep, unwavering love in just one look. Then there is Call Me By Your Name’s Chalamet, who asserts his acting talent in his seemingly effortless portrayal of the vicious, rebellious, liability-without-a-cause addict. The 23-year-old delivers just the right mix of charm and vulnerability to ensure that everybody watching genuinely wants to see him ‘come good’ – and many have expressed surprise that he has been snubbed in this year’s Oscars nominations.

Individually, this father-son duo make their mark and compellingly so. However, I was left wanting to see so much more between them than the clipped conversations and few random outbursts that occur, making the film feel somewhat emotionally muted.

David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet) in Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy does get some things right – the soundtrack is impressive, albeit a bit heavy-handed at signposting the characters’ emotional states of mind, and the cinematography and visuals are arresting, despite detracting from more disturbing moments and maybe even deliberately devised to do so. The screenplay provides plenty of food for thought, particularly when delving into the issue of exactly how best a family ravaged by drug addiction should deal with such a devastating problem.

Issues remain, however. Hollywood drug narratives are often predicated on creating sympathy for nice, privileged white boys like Nic Sheff, caught up (not perpetrating, or knowingly taking part) in a drugs epidemic that is often judged on racial and socioeconomic prejudice. Such prejudice tells us to criminalise the ‘blacks pushing crack’ but have empathy for the ‘lovely white folk devastated by heroin’ (or, in this case, meth). The only black characters on display here sell Nic drugs, and any discussion of the wider socioeconomic causes or consequences of America’s drugs problems are notable by their absence.

One might argue this is not a significant issue here, of course, as this is based on a true story – a story that happens to belong to a privileged (financially and socially) white family. And, of course, everybody’s story is valid. However, despite the film’s apparent good intentions and powerhouse cast, we are ultimately left with a sanitised depiction of the reality of drug addiction, as well as a biopic which fails to capture the most powerful moments and some key characters from the memoirs upon which it is based. 

Image: Plan B Entertainment

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Kemi J Williams

Kemi J Williams is a film critic for Stylist magazine. She thrives on analysing all things on screen from cult classics to daring dystopias. Ardent about empowering girls and women, she can also be found teaching secondary English while juggling the joys and challenges of motherhood. You can catch her latest musings on Twitter and Instagram @KemiJWilliams.

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