The horrors of drug addiction have long been chronicled in movies, ranging from the now-campy Reefer Madness to the brutality of Requiem for a Dream. It’s not often, though that much attention is paid to how a person’s addiction can affect their loved ones, as is the case in Beautiful Boy.
Based on the memoirs of both David Sheff and his son, Nic, the film mostly chronicles a period in the late teenage years of Nic (Timothee Chalamet) when he goes down a rabbit hole of drugs from which he can’t escape. David (Steve Carell), a freelance writer for publications like The New York Times and Rolling Stone, tries everything he can to stop Nic from using, mostly to no avail.
David and his ex-wife, Vicki (Amy Ryan), have been divorced since Nic was young, with David retaining custody. David has gone on to marry Karen (Maura Tierney), with whom he has two young kids. Despite this wealth of support, Nic gets deeper and deeper into drug use, culminating with what’s considered one of the most addictive drugs, crystal meth.
Directed by Felix Van Groeningen and written by Van Groeningen and Luke Davies, the film takes a meandering journey through those years, with a number of flashbacks to earlier, happier times when Nic was young and innocent. While highly effective in tugging at the heartstrings, the flashbacks also serve to muddle the overall timeline. Most of the film is a flashback from an opening scene, so the bouncing back and forth does no favors in keeping the chronology of events straight.
The story is unrelenting and unflinching right from the start. When we meet Nic, he’s already started his descent, so we’re not privy to knowing exactly what he was like when not on drugs, despite a few expository lines. Consequently, there’s something just a bit off when the film tries to go all-in on its emotions. It’s almost as if Van Groeningen is keeping us at arm’s length so we don’t receive the full brunt of feelings.
Any parent will likely struggle watching the film, whether you’ve had the same experiences or not. The helplessness that David feels as Nic gets farther and farther away from the boy he knew is gut-wrenching.
Left mostly unsaid in the film are any factors that might have led to Nic’s drug use. Might it have been the impact of the divorce, something that affected Nic years later despite a multitude of love? A scene of David and Nic sharing a joint is included, but it’s unclear if the filmmakers are trying to point to that as a causation, or merely one step in Nic’s drug usage.
Through it all, the acting is impeccable. Chalamet was already hailed as the next big thing following his roles in Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird in 2017, and this role only cements that status. Carell proves once again what a versatile actor he his, easily moving back and forth between drama and comedy. Tierney and Ryan are also great in their supporting roles.
Like most films about drug addiction, Beautiful Boy is not a film you’ll likely want to watch more than once. Despite some faults, it’s a nicely layered film that should make anyone want to stay as far away from drugs as possible.