Addiction is a concept not a lot of us understand, and some do all too well. While we all might know someone with an addictive personality we might not know someone truly struggling. What is clear however is that this isn’t a black and white issue, it isn’t something to be fixed in a Hollywood screenplay with a happy ending and some fruity dialogue. All we can do is try to understand as best we can and forget about fault or blame. Beautiful Boy is the story of a family on that exact journey and while it might not be a pleasant watch, it’s certainly a film to be cherished.
Telling the story of David Sheff (Steve Carell), a father coming to terms with the changes in his son Nic (Timothée Chalamet), who at the age of 18 has become addicted to crystal meth. As David tries to find any way to fix his son, Nic spirals down the rabbit hole of addiction, pushing against the disease that is slowly ripping his family apart as it breaks not only Nic but the ones he holds closest.
Directed by Felix van Groeningen, who is well versed in the notions of grief, unconditional love and the effects that trauma can have on a family unit thanks to his equally scarring yet beautiful film The Broken Circle Breakdown. Here he uses the notion of shared trauma to show how this connection can tear us apart, the pain of a memory or of an experience can cripple us moving forward before we take any steps to fix ourselves.
Both Chalamet and Carell are superb here for very different reasons. Carell is a closed off ball of anxiety and fear, whose failed attempts to find understanding through knowledge are written all over his face. Chalamet brings wildness to Nic that seeps through even when he is sober, highlighting the idea of ‘one day at a time’ and the constant commitment sobriety brings. The moments he gives in to this pull feel both freeing and catastrophic in equal measure thanks to a stark performance that lets no emotion go unexplored.
It’s dual purpose soundtrack cleverly forces you into this close yet cracking relationship Nic and David have through their shared love of music. It’s other motive is to plant you in the story, to bring you up and knock you down, sometimes even before something has gone wrong. The constant state of dread David feels, even during the happier times, is explored through sound and stillness more than words can convey. The feeling of imbalance for Nic transfers over to his whole family, putting everyone on edge, including you by extension.
While the film serves as an education into addiction, I mean how can it not, but the way it shows the circles around the addicts and how they wilt and decay in equal measure. Van Groeningen cleverly propels the story by splitting it in two. While you are spectator to the destruction of a family you also see what promise came before the drugs, before the lies and betrayals that follow. The idea that David still hasn’t let go to what his son could have been and Nic still thinks it might be possible to get it back pushes these two to their breaking points more than any drug could. They both underestimate their memories and it proves more tragic and heartbreaking than any relapse.
The disappearance of trust and of faith in what the future could hold are nagging feelings that ensure that there is never a single comfortable moment. The painful closeness that Nic and David feel means every misstep or disappointment hits you harder than a tonne of bricks. The way the plot erratically unfolds plays into these characters addictions with their search for perfection. While Nic is looking for the perfect high, that feeling of ecstasy that only the drugs can provide, David is looking for the perfect cure-all like Nic just has the flu or some other treatable problem. Beautiful Boy deals out ironies like it is going out of fashion and the most horrifying one is that Nic’s addiction gets his father hooked on fixing him, giving him his very own fixation.
Filled with little imperfections which add to the reality of this true story, Nic and David are always going to seek the time before, when Nic was young and innocent and a hug and some kind words solved everything. In a way, so are we but this isn’t the perfect story, there isn’t a magical potion or fantastical spell to fix this problem. This, as much as we hate to admit it, is a story set in the real world where life is hard and living can be brutal. Beautiful Boy in this regard is not a conventional film, it doesn’t really have a beginning or an end, it doesn’t particularly have a middle. That kind of narrative structure is for stories that have conclusions and Nic like all addicts will be working through this for the rest of his life.
The best way to put it is that this is the story of Humpty Dumpty after he fell off the wall. While you may try to fix yourself you are never going to be the same and the best we can all hope for is the acceptance that comes with this realisation. Maybe that is all we can hope for in life, the willingness to accept our limitations and work with what we have got. While this might not be alright with anyone seeking a tale with a beginning, middle and end, anyone after an emotionally engaging and physically exhausting film will be well served here. While many films this year will have some of the resonance of Beautiful Boy, it certainly won’t have its power or depth of understanding.