Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy has all the ingredients of a great film. It has a unique source material, adapted from two separate memoirs about the same story; features a naturally heavy narrative about addiction and its consequences; and is fronted by two incredibly talented, Academy Award-nominated actors. From the outside it looks like slam dunk, and a devastating one at that. However, actually watching the movie offers a different perspective, as while there is a lot to appreciate about what plays out on screen, it ultimately amounts to “good” instead of “great.”
Adapted by Luke Davies and Felix Van Groeningen, Beautiful Boy unfolds the true story of David (Steve Carell) and Nic Sheff (Timothee Chalamet), a father and son struggling with the very real horrors of drug addiction. Nic has spent his entire adult life hooked on heroin and crystal meth, and sacrifices basically everything he cares about in his pursuit of continuing his habit. David, meanwhile, struggles to understand the torturous conflict in which his child is trapped, and is left not knowing whether or not he should continue his support.
Playing out in a non-linear narrative, the film follows Nic as he experiences the cycle of addiction, rehabilitation, relapse, and readmission; while David goes to some extreme lengths in order to try and reconnect with the boy he has lost to poison.
Beautiful Boy is at its best when it is fully taking advantage of its two greatest assets, and becomes what it really should be: a vehicle for Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet to get really raw and showcase some true emotion. While it’s admittedly somewhat tough not to think about it as thoroughly depressing The Office fan fiction — as Amy Ryan plays David’s ex-wife, with whom he’s constantly sparring over the phone — Carell delivers what is his best dramatic performance since Foxcatcher, and beautifully expresses all of the fear, anger, and depression of his character through the narrative.
Chalamet, meanwhile, further solidifies the impressive reputation he has earned since his stunning performance in Call Me By Your Name. As brutal and horrible as Nic’s actions can be in the movie, you sympathize and want to see growth because Chalamet wears his heart on the outside in this role.
As great as Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet are, though, what’s missing from Beautiful Boy is anything particularly special that makes it stand out from the other hard-hitting, drug-centric big screen stories we’ve seen starring big name actors. It definitely feels like the non-linear structure is a straight attempt to mix things up, but not only does it still feel mostly rote, it can sometimes be temporarily confusing. We’ve seen these narrative beats play out hundreds of movies and television shows before, and in this case one could argue it’s hurt by being a true story because knowing anything about the source material on which the film is based gives you immediate insight to what plays out in the end.
There are some key sequences in the movie that stand out, such as David actually trying crystal meth in an attempt to better understand his son, but even that isn’t treated with any particular flair or unique style. You watch the film wanting more from it, and that alone is enough to take you out of the experience enough to disengage emotionally.
Cynical as it may sound, Beautiful Boy is a drama that is typical in theaters this time of year, as it will surely be aiming to pick up some accolades and hardware that will help it stand out as one of 2018’s best. That being said, this is a movie that is only going to play in the performance categories. It’s an easy film to appreciate, as there are thousands of people out there who can relate to the experience of the characters, but there’s a pretty big gap between that and it being something legitimately special.