Based on the memoirs by David and Nic Sheff, Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy begins like you might expect. Young Nic (Timothée Chalamet) returns home from a party during his senior year in high school and hides under his blankets, sweating and aching, until his father David (Steve Carrell) finds him and demands to know what the kid’s been using. Crystal meth, Nic says, which stuns his father.
The two don’t exactly have a traditional relationship, even though they’re extremely close — they’ve smoked weed together on occasion, and David keeps his son on a much looser leash than most parents — but he, along with his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) rushes their son into treatment. Of course, he emerges months later, seeming like a new man, and heads to college, where he soon relapses. The film then follows as Nic goes through the cycle of addition: Relapse, treatment, recovery, relapse, treatment, recovery, etc., and ultimately finds himself going to darker places each and every time he bottoms out. Meanwhile, David tries to learn all he can about the disease that has consumed his son, and ultimately has to come to grips that his once bright and innocent child has seemingly turned into a person he doesn’t recognize anymore.
Van Groeningen captures Nic’s descent into addiction without passing judgement on his actions or glamorizing them, a feat that directors even as accomplished as Darren Aronofsky have tried and failed at doing in their own way. That means there’s no Mountain Dew mouth or gangrenous wounds or easy explanations for one’s addiction to distract you, just exhaustion, panic and pain. He brings a harsh austerity to even the good times here, as fleeting as they might be, and he portrays this struggle with a knowing sadness. Part of that is due to the film’s insistence that we spend time with and focus on exclusively the relationship between father and son. It’s true that we see much of the story with David as he tries to find a way to help his son, which keeps us away from the underworld — the Tenderloin only ever glimpsed in passing — but Nic’s experiences as presented to us here don’t feel heavily edited, though it is a bit difficult to tell the passing of time every once in a while. Yet that is part of the point — the cycle of addiction never truly comes to a pause — and it’s easy to forgive being occasionally lost in time.
Chalamet, again, proves why he one of the strongest performers of his generation, as he takes a well-trod-upon role down a different path than, say, Al Pacino in The Panic in Needle Park. He’s able to communicate the neediness, the guilt, the shame of an addict with a believable edge, but he never drifts into caricature, always reminding us of the person that he was before the meth hit his life The only real downside to all of this is Carrell, who I think is miscast here. He’s got such a tightrope to walk in any dramatic circumstance, much like any actor primarily known for their comedy, and he’s not as able as those around him to adjust to the emotional poles required to make his performance less overwrought. It feels almost as if Van Groeningen cast him for a single specific look that he does where he’s able to convey disappointment, frustration and empathy quietly, much like did in Richard Linklater’s underrated Last Flag Flying. He’s doing his best to keep up though, and he’s often able to lean on the other members of the ensemble for help, specifically Chalamet, who is able to help him moderate his performance accordingly.
Yet, Beautiful Boy comes at a difficult moment in our national relationship with drug addiction, with overdosing becoming the leading cause of death for young Americans, and it may very well be the right film for its time. Van Groeningen’s presentation of the addiction cycle’s complexities and his utter refusal to settle for a cure-all happy ending feels revelatory in this context. His empathy for both the addicted and their loved ones, even in the worst of times, is a powerful counteractive measure to decades of propagandistic cinema full of stigmas and judgments. This isn’t a story about victory or “beating” an addiction, it’s about acceptance, forgiveness, and endurance through the moments of pain and the moments of joy.
‘Halloween’ opens October 19. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image by Ryan Green/Universal, courtesy of TIFF.