Beautiful Boy review: powerful, painful, poignant

The portrayal of addiction is both realistic and heart-wrenching in this adaptation of memoirs by a struggling father and a drug abusing son.

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A middle-aged man and a teenage boy smile into the camera. The man has his arm around the boy.
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Beautiful Boy is based on the real-life experiences of David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his meth addicted son Nic (Timothée Chalamet). Van Groeningen and Davies’ screenplay combines both the father’s and the son’s memoirs, which allows Carell and Chalamet to bring genuine insight to their performances and provides access to their shared experiences and private sufferings.

The film eschews the superficial indie glamour of Trainspotting and Pulp Fiction with their charismatic cult-status characters. Beautiful Boy is unlikely to have an unintentional glamourising effect. We see Nic cooking meth and shooting up, his needle-scarred arms a visual reminder of the trauma he’s putting his body through. We witness the oblivion of being high before the inevitable crash down to a deeper and darker place. We see him debasing himself: stealing his little brother’s savings and from the family home to get money for drugs and near-death experiences of ODs and relapses after long periods of being clean. As Chalamet says, “it’s really an anti-glorification of drug use,” yet it is so much more than a public service advert.

The non-linear storytelling in Beautiful Boy scatters a selection of happy memories of David and Nic’s bonding – childhood adventures, surfing, and these lighten the lowest moments and show what they’ve lost.

The women in the Sheffs’ lives are somewhat side-lined and restricted to a few emotional scenes trying to support the fragile father and son. Despite telling both sides of the story simultaneously, the focus and framing of paternal control over the narrative supports Nic’s paranoid fears of David trying to control his life. Fear of failure and the tyranny of expectation are hinted at rather than spelled out.

At the heart of this story is the father/son relationship. Carell is comfortable in the scenes where he plays the concerned father trying to understand his son and his addiction. He worries about his own failure as a parent as well as his son’s failure to live up to his expectations. Chalamet’s performance is the emotional heart of the film. He expertly navigates the twisting mood-swings, paranoia and other psychological side effects of a meth addiction as well as the physical degradation.

The final scene is Nic crying in his father’s arms after his most catastrophic and near fatal overdose. We leave Nic at his lowest, which whilst not the most conventional way to end a movie, felt the most appropriate. The message that ‘relapse is part of recovery’ is reinforced throughout the film. To complain of repetition of the recovery-relapse structure doesn’t credit the nuance behind each break-down as the cycle constantly wears both Nic and his family down nearly destroying everything. In a particularly poignant scene in a narcotics anonymous meeting, a mother says that whilst her daughter has only just died, she’d been mourning for years. This strikes a chord as when Nic’s addiction spirals we see the family’s mourning commence through detaching themselves from him. We are denied the happy ending; there is hope, but the threat of relapse and disaster persists.

The film is a moving story of personal struggle and self-destruction shown within an affluent and seemingly happy family. Despite the bleakness of the film which focuses on the struggles to stay clean, the shame and regret of failing to do so, Chalamet wisely says, “It’s about the fracturing of the human spirit … And how that can still … be redeemed and saved.”

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