TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2018: The subject of addiction is a hot topic in our political climate, especially as politicians use it as a conversation tool to encourage voting turnouts when they’re doing anything but to support this afflicted group. In Felix Van Groeningen‘s drama “Beautiful Boy,” an honest and raw depiction of addiction and how it affects the suffering is on full display for the audience to witness. With standout performances from Academy Award nominee Timothée Chalamet and Maura Tierney, there’s plenty to take away. However, an overly directed melodrama envelops a film that comes off as a manipulative infomercial about how to say “No” to drugs.
“Beautiful Boy,” tells the story of David Sheff (played by Steve Carell) and his son Nic (played by Chalamet), a father and son whose lives are chronicled in their experience dealing with Nic’s drug addiction. Based on the best-selling pair of memoirs from the real-life father and son, the film covers their experiences dealing with survival, relapse, and recovery in a family coping with the disease over many years.
As shown in his breakout year in 2017, Timothée Chalamet is stupendous once again in a role that calls for all his most magnificent sensibilities as an actor. He wraps into Nic’s constant struggle to not only use, but then to stay clean, and battle his own mysterious demons throughout. He lays into it with a ferocity we haven’t seen of him yet echoing a throwback performance like Timothy Hutton in “Ordinary People.” Bogged down by overplayed musical cues and choppy editing, Chalamet rises above the film’s missteps.
Steve Carell, as the bewildered and grappling father, manages what the role asks of him. We should no longer be surprised that the star of NBC’s “The Office” is now a fully committed and successful dramatic actor, as proven by his last string of works. In a role that is much more subdued and reserved, Carell shines in those moments, but when rising to an “explosion of emotions” note, it seems to be channeling more of “Michael Scott” than the father of an addict, missing the mark when afforded the opportunity.
As Carell’s second and current wife Karen, Maura Tierney, who has been underutilized for much of her career, is simply superb. Given next to no lines throughout, she manages to channel her pain with facial expressions and tearful beats. Her story was one that should have been further explored and given time as she is one of the film’s most compelling pillars. As Vicki, Nic’s mother and David’s first wife, Amy Ryan is regulated to the role of “woman on the phone.” As a mother who is supposed to be grappling with her son’s illness, she never punches through the screen the way she should, even when she’s clearly expressing it.
Screenwriter Luke Davies, who penned the beautiful “Lion,” and was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, cannot find the juice or fusion in which to bring these two acclaimed books together. Probably working better as a mini-series, in which we would have had more time to examine each character’s beats and motivations, or in the words of AC Staff Writer Karen Peterson suggested, make it as a “Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” type, as two separate films, that tell the same story, from a different person’s perspective. In the end, the film jerks and jolts, never managing to indeed smooth itself out, before it stops abruptly at the end leaving you ultimately unsatisfied.
Van Groeningen, who directed the masterful Oscar-nominated “The Broken Circle Breakdown” seems to be bringing an assurance we haven’t seen of him before, even when he is blundering along the way. He channels the period with the music and clothing styles, but not spending enough time on what’s living below the surface. In scenes where the father and son are talking about smoking weed together, there doesn’t seem to be an underlying responsibility that the film is both saying and absolving, all simultaneously. I would look forward to his next effort, with a more assured narrative approach.
In the end, “Beautiful Boy” can’t muster much beyond its central performances. The story of both a father and son’s interpretations of addiction are raw, and from someone who has seen addiction up close and personal, you can mirror it within your own experiences. The film seems to rely on that notion too much. It believes that if you have experienced this on either side, you should get on board. It doesn’t understand you have to be more than that. It’s about what the film is saying to the viewer, not what the viewer wants the film to tell it.
“Beautiful Boy” is distributed by Amazon Studios and opens in theaters on Oct. 12.