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Review: Beautiful Boy

A stale and sterile addiction drama that does justice to the memoirs from which it is adapted, but not to the communities which it tries so hard to represent. 

It starts with a question. David Sheff (Steve Carell), a freelance journalist living just outside San Francisco, is sitting in a sunny, wooden-walled room on a small twin bed across form his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet), when he first asks: why? Why had his charming and thoughtful son who loved drawing and writing and reading and surfing slid so quickly and so silently into addiction? Why and, David continues, when? After a moment’s pause, Nic responds, telling his father that crystal meth filled a void in his life, made his world go “from black and white to Technicolor.” And now he’s reluctant to go back.

Directed by Felix Van Groeningen (“The Broken Circle Breakdown”), “Beautiful Boy” is a true story based on the memoirs of real life David and Nic Sheff; they are respectively titled “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction,” and “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.” Looping back and forth in time and in memory, and organized around extended, music-driven montages, Groeningen’s adaptation explores — with care and carefulness — the all-consuming cycle of addiction, attempted sobriety, and relapse so common in substance abuse narratives.

Yet this cycle, despite being relatively true to form, is ultimately undermined by the film’s overwrought and overly-shallow script, which trades emotional depth for melodramatic sensitivity. Co-written with Luke Davies (“Lion,” “Life”), the screenplay is evacuated of any actual feeling; it not only is devoid of context, but ultimately feels sterile as a result of its poor pacing, shifting perspectives, and cliché one-liners (“I love you more than all the words in this language could describe,” David tells his son in one particularly cringe-worthy flashback).

In his first major role since his star-making turn in Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet does what he can with the role of Nic, and there are indeed some fantastic elements to his performance. He is particularly moving during some of the film’s silent scenes — Nic sitting across from his father begging not to be put in rehab, for example, or Nic on the side of the highway calling his addiction sponsor.

The best performance, however, comes from Maura Tierney, who plays Nic’s step-mother, Karen. Stoic in some moments, incensed in others, Karen is a woman only barely holding it together: she has to stay strong for David, has to be a good mother to her children, has to maintain her household and her career. And Tierney reveals these competing intentions non-verbally — through a simple look, a simple touch — demonstrating, in turn, the command she has on her craft. It helps, too, that she delivers her lines effortlessly, making Groeningen’s clunky script much more palatable.

“Beautiful Boy” ends with a black screen that relays to audience members a message about addiction rates in America, including information about where one might turn should one be afflicted by, or affiliated with, drug abuse. This note, however, rings a little hollow when one considers that the majority of people who struggle with addiction are unemployed, are from a low income bracket, are black, or are uneducated. In a 2016 article published by The Guardian, Maia Szalavitz writes that “heroin addiction is more than three times as common in people making less than $20,000 per year compared to those who make $50,000 or more,” for example, and that as a result, “recovery without treatment is far less common among the poor and unemployed.”

Citing this information is not an attempt to downplay Nic and his father’s struggles. Rather, it is brought up so as to highlight the privilege inherent in this narrative: Nic and his father are both white; David is a successful freelance journalist who writes for The Rolling StonePlayboy, and The New York Times; they both live in a large, beautifully decorated home outside San Francisco; they can afford any treatment at any time. Were Nic and David black, or from a low income bracket, circumstances would be different — and indeed, were Nic and David black, their story would have likely not been adapted for the screen. Just something to think about.

So that despite some strong performances from Timothée Chalamet and Maura Tierney, Felix Van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy” remains a stale and sterile addiction drama that does justice to the memoirs from which it is adapted, but not to the communities which it tries so hard to represent.

Jonathan Dick

Jonathan Dick is a playwright currently studying at the University of Toronto. He likes Wong Kar Wai, Kristen Stewart, and purple yam ice cream.