Despite its inherent fraught drama and emotional distress, a realistic depiction of addiction doesn’t naturally lend itself to great film. Addiction, recovery, and relapse make for punishing, frustrating cycles where the same ground has to be gone over again and again. Beautiful Boy doesn’t skimp on the authenticity in dealing with its subject matter, but in this commitment it finds itself caught up in a circle of diminishing returns. A deeply relevant American story in the climate of the opioid epidemic that is ravaging the heart of the country, it can’t quite summon the power necessary to become a truly necessary watch.
Based on the memoirs by father David and son Nic Sheff (here played by Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet, respectively), Beautiful Boy tackles Nic’s crystal meth addiction from both perspectives. Felix van Groeningen, making his English language debut, and writer Luke Davies rather shoot themselves in the foot in the film’s scattered first half. They hop about in time so that we only see Nic’s pre- and post-meth life in snatches, never staying anywhere long enough to build up the emotional groundwork that the more straightforward battle toward recovery requires to land with the strength it deserves.
There are, intermittently, some powerful scenes – an in-recovery Nic’s simple request to go to the bathroom at a college girlfriend’s house is loaded with anxiety and, even if it does feel sanitised, the grottiness of the meth-taking itself is well handled. Surprisingly, Beautiful Boy is definitely at its best and most affecting during Nic’s sober periods, whether that’s before the drug-taking begins or during his better recovery months. When there’s some light, Chalamet and Carell have a great dynamic, warm and funny, and it’s fun watching Nic grow up (Jack Dylan Grazer, playing Nic at 12, is such a ringer for Chalamet that it’s, frankly, eerie).
Once the bad times really start kicking in, Beautiful Boy becomes a two-hander (Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan’s roles as Nic’s step-mum and mum, respectively, are shallow and thankless) where one actor is doing most of the heavy lifting. Chalamet is fantastic, twitchy and genuinely uncomfortable to be around as Nic begs for money and disappoints his young siblings, but Carell is a little out of his depth, even miscast. His best dramatic performances have either been low-key affairs or balanced out with comedy, but the shouty desperation of this role doesn’t play to his strengths.
As is to be expected with an awards season weepy, the soundtrack is overly insistent. The score itself actually has some great compositions, but is often deployed with thudding obviousness that ranges from admittedly effective to unintentionally funny. In adapting two memoirs, Beautiful Boy finds itself swamped by the material, but it’s still an important and considered look at addiction elevated by Timothee Chalamet’s performance as he proves himself yet again to be one of the most confident and interesting young actors working today.