An otherwise strongly performed piece suffocated by its director.
Addiction is a curse. Addiction is a self-regulatory, horrific cycle. Addiction is a plague, a chain-reaction sparking affliction that throws the one holding the needle down to rock-bottom with the dream of a ladder, and gives those who desperately want to help the illusion of lowering one down. Beautiful Boy, the latest film from English-language feature debutant director Felix van Groeningen, agonisingly details the both arbitrary and systematic nature of drug abuse, but injects an unhealthy dose of melodrama and smothers the potent story as a result.
“There’s moments, I look at this kid that I raised… and I don’t know who he is,” says David Sheff (Steve Carrell) in an opening plea. Based on his best-selling memoirs, the film chronicles David’s increasingly strained relationship with his son, Nic (Timothee Chalamet), who after experimenting with drugs becomes a fully-fledged addict, stuck between recovering and relapse endlessly.
David says to the doctor that he wants to learn about the drugs Nic is taking (crystal meth is his worst affliction), in an effort to try and help, or as he puts it, to “know your enemies”. It’s a powerful, powerless bit of dialogue, but van Groeningen holds tight before finally revealing Nic. We’re introduced to their chaotic life when he goes missing during the night. As David phones the police and hospitals to see if he’s been admitted, he longingly stares at photos of his “beautiful boy”, a sequence-starting tendency that casts a long-shadow over kicking off any flashback. As a device in filmmaking, glancing to the past to add heft to the present makes sense, but you’ll find yourself asking how many times will David look at photos, how many times will van Groeningen insist on seeing young Nic (a well-played Jack Dylan Grazer) to make us feel about the collapse of current Nic. It’s repetitive, manipulative storytelling that’s unneeded given the believable weight of the family’s plight.
Not only is it tedious, but it lends the movie a progressively messy structure, with little sense of time or place, feeling more like a hazy-overview than the strong-handed approach that was required. You sometimes can’t help but feel frustrated, watching van Groeningen suffocate the utterly fantastic material on hand with some of the most obnoxious music cues you’ll have to bare witness to. Not that the tunes are bad, but they’re unbefitting of the somber, thoughtful examination that occasionally, Beautiful Boy becomes.
That’s down to some truly extraordinary lead performances. As a two-hander, it doesn’t get much better than this; a showcase of both emerging and underrated talent. Chalamet is intensely unlikeable (intentionally, of course), but seamlessly convinces you of his boyish naivety no matter his insistence that Nic needs independence. Both his stepmother and mother of the picture are fabulous too, played by Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan respectively, balancing the affecting and the grounded in two exceedingly relatable performances. But Carell is the star here. It’s funny, considering he and two co-stars have all appeared in The Office, but he’s far from the shallow now. This is a deeply-assessed, stirringly sensitive turn, making for a solid rock in which you in the audience can remain tied to throughout the struggle. As a father in disarray, he’s completely convincing, particularly in one scene with Tierney, in which he upsettingly explodes: “My son is out there, I don’t know where he is, and I don’t know how to help him!”
In picking a sensational ensemble, the filmmakers succeeded, but they’re denied the chance to really, fully shine. This is due to a couple of things; the script, penned by the director and Luke Davies, is more than a little on-the-nose, jumping to the peak of conflict without the burn of the gradual rise. But mostly, the vastly unorganised structure subdues their dramatic power, despite the surface-level, inherent emotional grip. Sure there’s some moderately tough scenes of misuse thrown in to hit the hard message home, but the gruelling scenes are those which feel truest to family misery. A diner scene between David and Nic (which has featured heavily in trailers), and a tender moment between Nic and his mother are two of the most-effective moments, free from the frills of van Groeningen’s maddening control; raw, poignant, memorable.
The direction may be messy, but the film is very clean-looking; Ruben Impens’ swish, attractive cinematography, framing a mixture of crystal-clear and grainy visuals, welcome you into the family like a retrospective home movie. This isn’t just about Nic’s addiction – it’s a reflection of how everyone is affected. It’s also a look at the painful restraint parents have to show in trying to help their kids, enrich them and protect them. But the full-package is flat, objectionable and literally nothing without some fine acting work.
Sledgehammer direction takes away from quite a powerful piece, anchored by a phenomenal two-hander.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm