Beautiful Boy tells the story of a family ravaged by the addiction of its eldest son. It’s based on two memoirs of that addiction, one by the father, journalist Dave Sheff, the other by his recovering-addict son Nic. Their stories have been carefully blended by writer Luke Davies and director Felix Van Groeningen, and Van Groeningen coaxes fearless performances from Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet as father and son. So why does the finished product feel so flat and monotonous?
Part of the problem is that in their keenness to avoid the clichés of drug movies that date all the way back to silent days, Davies and Van Groeningen have neglected to give their own movie any dramatic arc at all.
The picture opens with Dave Sheff interviewing a doctor (Timothy Hutton) about crystal meth—his son’s own drug of choice. Next, a title tells us, “One year earlier …” (Just when did that become the standard cliché for introducing flashbacks? I prefer the old cliché of rippling dissolves and harp glissandos.)
From there, Beautiful Boy is a seemingly endless cycle of rehab, recovery and relapse, as Nic caroms from deception to self-loathing and back, wheedling his father for money and claiming he’s five days sober when anyone can see he’s stoned out of his mind.
Davies and Van Groeningen take a frankly carefree approach to chronology, interspersing the past year of Nic’s ups and downs with deeper flashbacks to his childhood (played by Kue Lawrence) and adolescence (Jack Dylan Grazer), when he really was a beautiful boy, and throwing Chalamet’s meth-addled Nic into harrowing relief. It also throws into relief Dave Sheff’s cycle of hope, anxiety, exasperation and guilt, always wondering what to do next, or what he could or should have done differently.
Through it all we’re never sure exactly where we are in that “one year earlier” we read about, or where Nic is on his road to the “eight years clean and sober” that he’s currently enjoying, “one day at a time,” according to the movie’s written epilogue. Maybe that was Davies and Van Groeningen’s intention, to give a sense of Dave Sheff’s fear that this living hell will never end. But it’s debatable whether they can do that by planting the fear in their audience that this movie will never end. And as excellent as Carell and Chalamet are, I wish they didn’t so completely hog the camera; it would be nice to know how others are affected by Dave and Nic’s travails. Instead, Amy Ryan as Nic’s mother is confined mainly to swapping recriminations with Carell over the phone, while Maura Tierney, as Dave’s second wife, registers as little more than a pair of pursed lips out of focus in the background.
By the time Beautiful Boy cycles back to that interview, we don’t get the sense of a circle closing; it feels more like someone mixed reels and started the movie all over again. Nic is still addicted, Dave is still distraught, everyone else is still unimportant. But again, maybe that was the point.