Beautiful Boy tells the heartbreaking true stories of Nick and David Sheff, respectively a teen (Timothée Chalamet) who spirals into drug use and his journalist father (Steve Carell), who sincerely attempts to understand his son’s dark predicament but risks pushing him further away the more he tries. The film is based on their twin memoirs, both published in 2008, which chronicle the struggles of addiction from their individual perspectives. Considering the talent involved and the subject matter, one might expect an insightful and heart-wrenching drama. But while director Felix Van Groeningen earnestly depicts the roller coaster of emotions that comes with addiction, from rehab to relapse, the film singularly fails to live up to its impactful potential. The admirable gambit to adapt the two books backfires, as the conflation of both stories results in a confusing chronology and a repetitive narrative. One might argue that this redundant impression is necessary in order to mimic the dispiriting and vicious relapse-recovery-relapse cycle, but it makes for a tedious watch. Moreover, the dual perspective means that you never truly get inside the headspace of the protagonists, resulting in a bizarre lack of emotional engagement and a frustrating lack of greater insight into a complex topic.
It’s important not to diminish the issues the film addresses or belittle the stories of the Sheff family, and thankfully, Beautiful Boy offers no easy answers. But for a true story, it’s perplexing how conventional it feels and how much it fails to deliver a convincing wallop. It desperately needed a more understated approach and even if Carrell and Chalamet’s heartfelt performances offer the requisite pathos, their turns often feel undercut by the aforementioned non-linear structure and Groeningen’s rote direction. The soundtrack in particular does it no favours, as the painfully heavy-handed needle drops – from Massive Attack to Nirvana via Sigur Ros – aim to reflect and comment on what the characters are going through in the most ham-fisted way possible. The overall package feels more like a hectoring anti-drugs campaign video than an even-handed exploration of addiction.
Beautiful Boy | Directed by Felix van Groeningen (US 2018) with Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carrell, Amy Ryan. Starts January 24.
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