Drug addiction is one of the most controversial yet destructive vices impacting society today. Here is America opioids have become one of the most damaging mainstream drugs on the market, used to treat mental and physical illness but also highly addictive due to their euphoric and relaxing properties. A lot of films have tried to capture the impact such drugs and addiction in general have on someone’s life and family, but surprisingly not a lot of them are grounded in the real world which is probably why “Beautiful Boy” has gained so much attention in recent weeks. An early Oscar favorite, this biographical drama is based on the duel struggles of father and son Dave and Nic Sheff whose memoirs provided looks at the different sides of addiction, the addict and the loved ones affected by the addiction. I finally got the chance to see the film myself. Is “Beautiful Boy” the emotionally charged experience is needs to be or is it a pandering drama that misses the mark? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Beautiful Boy”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Beautiful Boy” is based on David Sheff’s memoir “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” and his son Nic Sheff’s memoir “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines” with Steve Carrell playing David Sheff and the ever talented Timothée Chalamet as Nic Sheff, a drug addict struggling to find his place in the world. The film chronicles Nic’s numerous attempts to get clean while David struggles to try to be a supportive father and lead his son through his addiction. Numerous failures strain their relationship as the film provides a look into the all-to-real struggles an addict and his support systems often face eventually forcing Nic to decide if he wants to live and die by his addiction while David must decide how far he wants to go to continue to help his son recover from an illness that is consuming them both in different ways.
It’s actually kind of interesting that we have two potential Oscar favorites with “boy” in their name released close to each other. Over the weekend I reviewed “Boy Erased”, another biopic, but I actually liked “Beautiful Boy” more. This whole review won’t be a comparison of these two movies, but it does lead me into my first positive. “Beautiful Boy” uses the flashback storytelling tool to much greater effect. Throughout this film we see recollections of Nic Sheff’s childhood which capture a more peaceful existence before his drug addiction began. This to me is one of the best parts of the presentation of this story because it provides a comparison for the audience to turn to when trying to interpret the impact that the addiction has on the Sheff family. It’s one of many great aspects of “Beautiful Boy” built to create a snapshot of the humanity of these addicts despite their vices that have created nothing but pain for themselves and their loved ones. It’s also a reminder of why family members keep fighting for Nic, they know the young and beautiful boy he used to be. Also, credit to the casting director for picking some great young actors who bear striking resemblance to a younger Timothée Chalamet.
With that in mind the acting really makes this movie. “Beautiful Boy” plays out sort of like a duel character study, allowing us intimate views into how addiction hurts Nic as well as his father but without amazing performances by the leads this relationship would have suffered greatly. Timothée Chalamet has proven time and time again in recent films that he is one of the brightest young actors of the new generation. He’s an incredible performer who has stood out in numerous films in recent years but for me “Beautiful Boy” is his most impressive work. Chalamet gets right to the core of his character bringing out all of his frustration and anger and the underlying emotions of his struggle. His take on a drug addicted young man is so raw and focused and real it’s hard to look away. Chalamet provides a brutally honest look at how drugs affect the addicted not only physically but also mentally layering his performance with bouts with anxiety and depression to drive home how the addiction is not just something Nic does for fun, it’s a tragic coping mechanism as well. We even get a great moment where he honestly tells himself that he believes he is not diseased but self destructing, yet he still embraces his addiction. Little details like that are why I absolutely loved this performance. In my opinion it’s one of the best leading male performances of the year. I’d watch this movie again just to see Chalamet do what he does.
On the other end we have Steve Carell as David Sheff. Carell made his name as a comedic actor but we know by now he can be tremendous in dramatic roles. His take on David Sheff for me is one of his best ever. He’s a father who is meant to show the audiences the struggle a family member deals with when it comes to addiction. With that in mind Carell’s performance is incredibly well done presenting a heavy emotional struggle blended with an internal moral fight that plays into David’s evolution over the course of the film. He starts off a scared father letting his son do what he does because Nic is his own man but as Nic’s problems become more obvious David starts to suffer in his own way. He spends money traveling to bail Nic out of sticky situations, he gives his son numerous chances to maintain his trust and even oes to drastic measures to understand what Nic feels during his drug use. He’s a man who is confused and frustrated. He wants to help his son for fear of losing him but also knows he’s not really doing the good he wants to by holding on so tightly. I actually think Carell’s performance is even more eye opening than Chalamet’s at times. We see drug addicts every day, not that it’s a good thing or that every drug addict looks the same, but we’re more familiar with it. Most of us aren’t as familiar with how the family and loved ones are affected and seeing it on screen honestly made me pleasantly uncomfortable. I felt like I was privy to something very private which is all one can hope for from an intimate movie experience like this.
“Beautiful Boy” has a lot of layers to it and surprisingly juggles its focus on duel stories quite well. It takes time to develop both sides of the story evenly, giving us intimate moments with David while also giving us some more brutal and terrifying moments embracing Nic’s story. By the end of the film I felt like I knew both of these people. I felt like I understood their individual struggles and how they relate, how difficult their decisions and battles were and how one decision by one played into the actions of another. “Beautiful Boy” in all its brutal honesty presents drug addiction as somewhat of a never-ending cycle of cause an effect and at the same time explains that while drug addiction is a disease it’s also brought on by a choice, one with consequences that everyone else involved has to decide if they even want to help resolve. It’s a depressing but inspiring story that had me invested from start to finish and proves that sometimes added drama and forced conflict aren’t necessary to drive home the emotional core of a film. “Beautiful Boy” accomplishes everything it set out to do with great acting, directing and writing doing justice to its sensitive and rather timely source material.
One of the most glaring issues one might notice with “Beautiful Boy” is that because it’s squarely focused on the two leads the rest of the cast is kind of forsaken. Half the time I forgot characters were even in this story despite the performances actually being very good. Actresses Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan play David Sheff’s wife Karen and ex wife Vicki respectively, both serving as moral support for David and Nic, but neither get the screen time they deserve instead coming into the story when they needed to add to the emotional tension and then disappearing until they’re needed again. Several young women play important roles in Nic’s life too, including Kaitlyn Dever who portrays a fellow addict late in the film, but again despite decent performances their relegated to minor roles built to help drive the story forward. And it’s not just the ladies that are ignored either, they just happen to make up the bulk of the remaining cast who are all pushed aside for the main two-person story. There are some nice moments where the women in the Sheff’s lives get to shine but for the most part it’s all on the two male leads which can make the side characters feel like just that, side character that aren’t nearly as developed or interesting as they chould have been.
While I was fully invested the entire movie and I can’t really pinpoint anywhere where fat could have been trimmed from this film, I have to admit the pacing can be a problem at times with “Beautiful Boy”. If you’re not going in to embrace the story and are looking for more hard drama this movie will disappoint. You have to actually WANT to see this story to enjoy and respect it. At around two-hours long it can definitely be a slog if you don’t care about character development or the subtler aspects of the story. It’s not quite art house, but I will admit there are parts that are drawn out and maybe take a bit too long to develop and conclude. For me these actually added to the quality of the film while others will certainly see this as padding or even pretentiousness on the part of the filmmakers. To put it simply one of this movie’s biggest weaknesses is that it is so well done it may have cornered itself into a niche audience by focusing on story and the humanity of it’s characters rather than amping up the drama to make things more interesting or engaging. I like it just the way is but I’m sure there are many out there who would disagree based on the pacing alone.
I’ve seen a lot of movies that tackle tough subjects like mental illness and drugs, but I’ve never seen anything as raw, as real or as honest as “Beautiful Boy”. This film has it all for me. It’s a great story with great performances that doesn’t compromise on the difficult subject matter that makes up the focus of the narrative. Probably its biggest fault is that it’s not built to entertain everyone, but to be honest it’s not really a movie built to “entertain” in the first place. It’s meant to open eyes to realities of the modern world which is kind of what art in general is meant to do anyways right? It does also forsake its side characters but the two main characters and the performances by Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell are spot on allowing viewers to take a journey into the experiences of two men with a perfectly balanced focus on both sides of drug addiction, the addict and the people that suffer as a result. “Beautiful Boy” was just an incredible eye-opening movie experience for me, one with plenty of emotional weight and talent to do it’s story justice without going to over the top. It might not be for everyone but those who choose to embrace it are in for a treat.