Beautiful Boy film review: Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet star in harrowing but flawed drug addiction memoir
The drug movie is a tough genre to navigate. Go too far in one direction and it becomes preachy; too far in the other and you end up glamourising the fetid reality of addiction.
Beautiful Boy is drawn from a pair of memoirs by the journalist David Sheff and his son Nicolas, and relates the latter’s descent into the hellworld of crystal meth addiction.
Director Felix Von Groeningen certainly doesn’t glamourise: he’s refreshingly frank about his subject matter, never over-dramatising teenage addiction, and steering consciously clear of any Kids-style valorisation of its attendant youth culture.
Yet his film doesn’t succeed in apprehending meth addiction as it actually is – rather than displaying its most gruesome elements on screen, Van Groeningen has them described to David by a doctor, a technique that deadens its capacity to shock or move.
Matters are made worse by a shaky pair of lead performances performances, with golden boy Timothée Chalamet playing Nicolas and Steve Carell playing David. Carell’s transition from comic actor to serious dramatist has been bumpy, and he’s lucky that Van Groeningen decided to omit most of the mawkishness characteristic of addiction memoirs, because he proves himself to be out of his depth in the few scenes that require him to show emotion.
He’s a methodical presence, rarely crying or raising his voice; instead spending most of his screen time frowning intensely into his peripheries. Some might describe this as ‘admirable restraint’, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying depiction of the unvarnished nightmare of parenting a meth-addict.
The other issue with the casting can be expressed via a potentially blasphemous question: how good is Timothée Chalamet really? He has some youthful magnetism, but his performances feel too processed, too deliberate, as if his acting coach is standing just out of view. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when he gets too old to play teenagers: is he James Dean? Or is he Haley Joel Osment, who excelled when essentially playing himself in The Sixth Sense, but has been going straight to video ever since?
The most moving performance comes in its most thankless role, with Amy Ryan wringing every last morsel of pain and desperation from her measly screen time as Nicolas’ mother. There isn’t much for the female actors here: like Ryan, Maura Tierney does what she can with her role as David’s wife (Nicolas’ stepmother), but she’s largely restricted to copying her husband’s moves.
Nevertheless, there’s something valuable about Beautiful Boy, largely in its unswerving resistance to the expedient or the explanatory. It’s probably benefited from being an adaptation, since Nicolas Sheff knows better than anyone the nameless, shapeless turmoil from which his addiction was an outgrowth.
The temptation in such movies must be to include an identifiable cause, a childhood trauma that makes the compulsion rational, explicable. Nicolas doesn’t exactly know why he began taking meth, but he knows why he didn’t stop: it felt good. Banal reasons can sometimes be the most terrifying of all.