Michael Simon ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Movie Contributor
Stories of addiction and substance abuse and overdose have flooded the news cycle far too often in the modern era. Oftentimes when Hollywood attempts to tackle a subject such as this, it is done either in a way that overly romanticizes drug usage or focuses on a romantic relationship between drug users which ultimately complicates matters. One would be hard-pressed to find a film that faces the topic in the same head-on way that Beautiful Boy does – a film that beautifully and heartbreakingly weaves together two memoirs written by a father and son about their tumultuous relationship through substance abuse.
The movie is spearheaded by two contained yet explosive performances from Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet who drive the story and provide the film with some much-needed star power. In fact, one could argue that without such star power behind the film, Beautiful Boy may have never been as talked about as it is right now.
Whilst Carell has shown himself in recent years to be just as adept – if not more so – to dramatic roles as he is to comedic ones, he truly takes steps into new territory with his work here as David Sheff. David has the difficult role of being a parent to a son who is slowly spiraling out of control, and while he is desperate to help him as a father, he has to come to terms with the fact that only his son is capable of taking the actions towards saving himself.
The movie is riddled with flashbacks and memories to simpler times in which David watched his son grow up as a child full of wonder and joy and as a young man full of promise and potential. It is painful both for David and the audience to watch as the questions regarding his son’s future turn from “What will my son be when he grows up?” to “Is my son going to live past 19 years old?” David is quiet but strong, heartbroken but determined, and understanding but limited. He lives in a state of constant worry, often neglecting his wife and other children simply because he is awaiting a phone call as to the whereabouts and physical state of his son. More than anything, he wants to do whatever he can to help his son survive, but he simply cannot – addiction does not work like that. No matter what David wants, he cannot singlehandedly pull his son out of the darkness, and the movie in large part focuses on how he comes to terms with this unbearable fact.
The second half of this masterful duo is Chalamet as the younger Sheff, Nic. The film makes it abundantly clear that, at his core, Nic is a kid who has lost control and simply cannot fully stop himself from the path he is set upon. He goes for long stretches of time without abusing drugs only to fall off the wagon again in the smallest of ways, and in each one of these cases, Chalamet’s disappointment and self-loathing are palpable in his every facial expression. He has no desire to be this person, but for lack of a better term, he cannot end it.
Nic is unpredictable in every way – both his family and the audience feel genuinely afraid when he shows up at various moments throughout the film. Is this Nic going to be loving and playful with his younger siblings and sit down to enjoy a long-awaited meal with his father? Or is this the Nic who breaks into his own home, steals money from his toddler siblings, and berates his father and stepmother when they refuse to give him exactly what he wants? Chalamet is earth-shattering in this role because Nic is truly a different person almost every time he appears; he is so many characters rolled up into one and Chalamet nails every single one of them.
Any review of Beautiful Boy would be remiss to not mention how addiction itself is so accurately portrayed in this film, perhaps more accurately than ever before on the big screen. If nothing else, this movie shows two things: addiction can happen to anyone and there is no definitive end to the cycle. Nic is a good kid from a wealthy family with no criminal background or connections or anything of the like and yet he still falls victim to addiction. His life was perfectly fine and manageable before his infatuation with illegal substances began, and yet he spirals out of control all the same. It is this fact that breaks down whatever preconceived notions the audience may have as to what a drug abuser looks like, for there is no one true image of a drug abuser. Widespread and unbiased, addiction does not discriminate.
As to the second point, Beautiful Boy is reminiscent of 2016’s heartbreaking drama Manchester by the Sea, the key difference being that whilst the former handles addiction, the latter handled grief. Oftentimes, when portrayed in film, grief and addiction permeate a character up until they are hit by a moment of light – a moment in which the character or characters are suddenly able to overcome their hardships and move on with their lives in a better, more productive way. Both of the aforementioned films go out of their way to never provide a genuine, long-lasting moment of light and it is in this way that they portray these issues so intensely accurately.
Sometimes, people are overwhelmed by these matters – be them grief, addiction, or something else entirely – and are simply unable to get better. For some, life just stalls and cannot move forward for what seems like the longest time, and while these do not always make for the most uplifting, feel-good movie-going experiences, they are nonetheless stories worth telling. So, while Beautiful Boy is far from the most fun time one might have at the movies this fall, it is certainly one of the most timely and meaningful pieces on an issue that has become all too common.
Overall Grade: A-
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