2018-11-01 / Around Town

‘Beautiful Boy’ Could Use Less Beauty and More Grit

FILM REVIEW
By Loren King


Timothee Chalamet and Steve Carell play son and father in "Beautiful Boy," opening at the Jane Pickens Theater. Timothee Chalamet and Steve Carell play son and father in "Beautiful Boy," opening at the Jane Pickens Theater. Timothee Chalamet is the boy of the film’s title, and the youthful delicacy and sensitivity that served him so well in “Call Me by Your Name” is equally suited to this story of drug addiction and family heartbreak.

Chalamet plays Nic Sheff, a young man with everything going for him who gets caught in the downward spiral of drug addiction. But “Beautiful Boy” is less Nic’s story than his father’s, David Sheff (Steve Carell).

The script is adapted from two memoirs: “Tweak” (2007) by Nic Sheff and “Beautiful Boy” (2008) by David Sheff.

Despite the near-universal devastation of drug addiction and the timeliness of the subject, the film avoids the grittier aspects of its story. It comes nowhere near the harrowing power of classics “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” (1955) or “The Days of Wine and Roses” (1962), which both dealt with the horrors of alcoholism. More recently, “The Basketball Diaries” (1995), with Leonardo DiCaprio as the high schooler who develops a heroin habit and the mother (Lorraine Bracco) who must finally turn her back on him, also went to darker places than “Beautiful Boy,” which prefers sun-dappled shots of dad and son in happier times.


Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. “Beautiful Boy” opens in the most banal way, with David Sheff, a journalist, seated across a desk from a doctor as Sheff peppers him with questions about his son’s drug abuse. With families being ripped apart by the curse of addiction, a doctor spouting medical advice in his office seems an odd dramatic choice and a quick way to put a movie audience to sleep.

It does get better, thanks to winning performances from Carell as the loving dad and, especially, Chalamet as the high-achieving, precocious son. Nic has everything going for him: looks, brains, artistic creativity and a well-off family that adores him.

The film, to its credit, doesn’t try to explain the unexplainable. There’s simply a void in Nic that he tries to fill by getting high, first on methamphetamine and, later, heroin.

David and Nic’s stepmother, Karen (Maura Tierney), do their best to help Nic, from paying for expensive rehabilitation to keeping him at their woodsy Northern California home under caring but close supervision. But Nic keeps slipping.

Director Felix van Groeningen includes a couple of scenes that show just how low Nic’s addiction takes him, but mostly the movie limits itself to a by-the-numbers approach to addiction, such as the requisite scene of a support group meeting where David and Karen sit next to a sign that reassures them that they didn’t cause and can’t cure addiction.

Van Groeningen lays the sentiment on a bit thick. He intercuts the family’s present struggles with flashbacks of Nic as a mop-topped kid, bonding with his dad as they share an airport embrace when Nic departs alone to California to visit his mom (Amy Ryan) after his parents’ divorce, or David softly cooing the John Lennon song of the title to Nic as he drifts off to sleep.

The sentimental can quickly turn saccharine. “Sunrise, Sunset” is a beautiful song that may cause wedding guests to tear up, but here, sung by Perry Como no less, it seems out of place tonally. Every addict was once someone’s innocent child; dewy flashbacks and Hallmark moments don’t convey the pain or the high stakes.

Still, there are scenes that stand out, thanks to the solid performances. A tense reunion between Nic and David in a San Francisco cafe will resonate with any parent who has tried to connect with a defensive, floundering child. Late in the film, after Nic has left yet another rehab and slipped back into drug use, Karen reaches the breaking point and jumps into her car to pursue the fleeing Nic, following him as he speeds along the winding roads of Marin County.

It’s a crazy, nonsensical, heartbreaking act of desperation that packs an emotional punch. It’s that kind of wallop that’s missing from most of this film, which prefers to keep messiness at a distance.

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