Felix Van Groeningen
Beautiful Boy November 15, 2018
Beautiful Boy, which was co-written and directed by the Belgian filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen, is a dramatization of the story of Nic and David Sheff. David is a freelance journalist and author whose work has been published in The New York Times and Rolling Stone; in his late-20s, Nic went on to emulate his father career-wise and became a columnist and essayist. In 2008, both released books about their ruptured relationship; together, the memoirs work as the basis for the movie. The 22-year-old Timothée Chalamet, flimsy and mop-headed, plays Nic. Steve Carell, hirsute and corduroyed, plays David.
The film, whose reception has partly depended on how critics have taken to its narrative style, is nonlinear. It begins with David, sitting across from a doctor (Timothy Hutton), attempting to learn everything he needs to know about meth addiction. From there, the movie settles into a timehop-fixated narrative style. Sometimes we are immersed in the years during which Nic had not yet found drugs, and was an artsy, quasi-whiz kid who depended on the sounds of Nirvana and David Bowie for his highs. Sometimes we’re dropped into the acme of the boy’s habit: On some occasions, we might find him making anxious, tear-stained phone calls to his father, begging for a rescue, after reaching an ephemeral epiphany; during others, he’s wandering the streets, open-mouthed and numbingly under the influence. Though flashbacks go as far back as Nic's childhood, Beautiful Boy predominantly revolves around the period where the latter was in his late teens and early 20s, the period during which his addiction was at its pinnacle.
Nonlinearity was clearly an attempt, on the part of Van Groeningen and his co-screenwriter, Luke Davies, to do away with what might feel like the dramatic inevitabilities of the addiction drama. Within the confines of the latter subgenre, first comes the addiction, and the discovery of that addiction by loved ones; the plummeting to the bottom, or, in some cases, the overdose; and then, finally, the chance to rebuild a life. The achronological nature of the narrative also seems like a thinly veiled ploy to mimic the unpredictable and cyclical essence of addiction; no matter what stage someone is in, the unexpected, or the tragic, could flare up at any moment.
But Beautiful Boy’s tangled storytelling dilutes its emotional impact. Because the time-jumping is most intense at the beginning of the film, scant momentum can be built from the jump. The lacking of urgency is distinct; the understanding of what Nic and David’s relationship was like before the former’s addiction exploded is only obliquely explored. We do not know much about these people outside of how they confront their loved one’s disease: the inner lives are seldom explored. (Though maybe this is purposeful: Nic’s illness was so all-devouring, on both his and his family's part, that chances to look inward, and explore one’s interests, became negligible after a while.)
Beautiful Boy is a punishing movie. Though it contains powerful moments — usually, they involve Carell and Chalamet having heart-to-heart exchanges, whether charged or sweetly wrought — it is, mostly, monotonously dreary and unengagingly circuitous. As a drama about a young man on the verge, Beautiful Boy most succeeds, but Van Groeningen lets the story take precedence over the characterizations.
Carell and Chalamet are so good, though, that the feature’s axing of real character development at certain moments might go unnoticed. Impassioned, and believable as father and son, they provide Beautiful Boy with the exigence missing from the writing and the directing. Carell, compassionate but often psychically frail, is persuasively terrified. Chalamet, who is preternaturally effective here, leaps from persona to persona — from the cherubic, eager pre-addiction Nic, to the sapped, woebegone junkie version — with élan and impressive attention to physical detail. Co-stars Maura Tierney, as David's wife and Nic's stepmother, and Amy Ryan, as David's ex and Nic's mom, are given less to do, but they imbue their performances with clear-cut hurt in spite of the limited material they have to work with.
Perhaps there is no way to satisfyingly tell this story. Recovering from addiction can be a circular process, and thus can be difficult to affectingly dramatize. Still, Van Groeningen’s accenting of story and its structuring waters down the emotional purity the feature might have had even if it had gone with a hackneyed, straight-as-an-arrow narrative mode. Carell and Chalamet give such robust performances, though, that however deficient Beautiful Boy’s characterizations are, they make this burdensome, unvarying ride worth it. B
here is Nic? That question is asked a number of times throughout Beautiful Boy (2018), a biographical movie about meth addiction. Usually, someone wants to know literally: Nic, the central user, has a propensity to disappear and forget about the wonders of the cell phone. But other times, someone just wants to know where the person Nic was and could be — a version not ravaged by addiction — is.