BEAUTIFUL BOY

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Felix van Groeningen

Stars: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Kue Lawrence, Jack Dylan Grazer.

Maura Tierney, Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Oakley Bull, and Christian Convery in Beautiful Boy (2018)Sharing the same title as a John Lennon song (which Richard Dreyfuss sang to his hearing impaired son in Mr Holland’s Opus), this is a downbeat and grim, but ultimately inspiring cautionary tale of drug addiction, rehabilitation, relapse, and the huge emotional toll that addiction takes on the family of the victims. We’ve seen a number of films dealing with drug addiction, including Otto Preminger’s 1956 drama The Man With The Golden Arm starring Frank Sinatra, 2006’s Candy, 1971’s The Panic In Needle Park with a younger Al Pacino, and the slick 1981 German melodrama Christiane F, amongst others.

Nic Sheff (Timothee Chalamet, the young breakout star from last year’s Oscar nominated Call Me By Your Name) was a healthy, intelligent and artistically inclined teenager who enjoyed a close relationship with his father David (played by Steve Carell), a freelance journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. The young Nic dabbled in drugs, but then while at college became addicted to meth amphetamines, and thus began the nightmare descent into a personal struggle. David tried to help as best he could, but eventually he resorted to some tough love as he realised that he couldn’t do much more to help his son.

Beautiful Boy is based on the memoirs of both David Sheff (Beautiful Boy) and Nic (Tweak) that dealt with Nic’s battle with addiction, rehabilitation and recovery. Beautiful Boy is the English language debut for Belgian born filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen (the 2012 tearjerker The Broken Circle Breakdown, etc). He made the bold decision to combine both memoirs for one film, thus giving us two different perspectives on the personal and emotional journey. Not only does it explore Nic’s point of view and show how easy it is to fall into the vicious cycle of addiction and relapse, with temptation always close at hand, but it also serves up insights into the suffering endured by Nic’s loving and concerned family as they learn how to cope and seek help. We get up close and personal to David’s suffering and feelings of helplessness as he struggles to help Nic. The screenplay has been written in collaboration with Australian writer Luke Davies (Lion, etc), who previously wrote Candy, another harrowing tale of the high cost of drug addiction, that starred Heath Ledger. Van Groeningen’s direction is both empathetic and non-manipulative.

Beautiful Boy is grim stuff, and the bleak material does not make for a comfortable viewing experience. Over the end credits we get some grim statistics about the cost of drug addiction in terms of lives lost, which gives us some sobering food for thought as we exit the cinema. But the material is also suffused with a hint of optimism and hope, and Nic’s ultimate ability to break away from his addiction is mean to inspire others.

The cinematography from Van Groeninger’s regular collaborator Ruben Impens perfectly matches the shifting moods of the drama. When everything in Nic’s family is happy and going along smoothly the colour palette is brighter and lighter and warmer. But when Nic is experiencing the agony of addiction, and when David finds its hard to cope, the colour palette is greyer and darker.

There is also some great production design from Ethan Tobman (Kin, Room, etc) that creates two of the important locations that play key roles in Nic’s story – the New York café in which Nic and David often meet, and their sprawling family home.

The film is grounded by the two superb lead performances from its stars. Chalamet and Carell establish a wonderful warm and believable chemistry that further grounds the film. The prodigiously talented Chalamet delivers another fearless and committed Oscar worthy performance here as Nic; he apparently dropped some twenty pounds for the role and his beautifully nuanced performance is utterly convincing and believable and heartbreaking.  Carell has shown his dramatic chops before in some serious roles (the recent drama Last Flag Flying, etc). He brings a sincerity and honesty to his role, and this is one of his best performances to date.

Maura Tierney (Liar Liar, etc) is also solid as David’s second wife Karen, who has to deal with the emotional fallout caused by Nic’s addiction, while Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, etc) is also very good in an understated performance as Vicki, David’s ex-wife, Nic’s mother, who also faces an emotional crisis in trying to deal with Nic’s addiction. And Kue Lawrence and Jack Dylan Grazer  are appealing as younger versions of Nic.

★★★☆

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