Acclaimed Belgian writer and director Felix van Groeningen makes his English language debut with biographical drama Beautiful Boy. Based on memoirs by father and son David and Nic Sheff, the plot explores drug addiction through the perspective of a loving parent. When David (Steve Carell) discovers that his son Nic (Timothée Chalamet) has been using marijuana, cocaine and crystal meth, he promptly checks him into a rehabilitation clinic, and the affliction soon puts a strain on their relationship.
No time is wasted in establishing the comfortable Sheff family dynamic. Nic’s parents are separated but he has wanted for nothing, enjoying a privileged upbringing filled with nothing but love and encouragement. The narrative effectively illustrates that you don’t have to have underlying issues to be led down a harrowing road to substance abuse, but then highlights this point, and then underlines it for good measure. A non-linear structure is adopted which flashes back to Nic at various stages of his childhood, but the ‘look at how cute he was!’ moments juxtaposed with the darker scenes becomes repetitive and meandering as the film attempts to hammer home its message.
The screenplay might be too sentimental for its own good, but it does draw out strong performances from the leads. Carell demonstrates again that he is more than just a comedy actor, continuing his impressive run of formidable serious roles. He captures David’s torment very well, expressing a gamut of emotions as he desperately tries to help Nic, and to come to terms with his son’s condition. After breaking through a couple of years ago in the much-lauded coming-of-age movie Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet has become the go-to actor for brooding teenage angst. In this complex portrayal, he manages to make Nic unlikeable and irritating in his selfishness, but also to have us, the audience, root for his safety and wellbeing, as if all the viewers become protective parents bearing witness to his decline to despair.
Adapted by two screenwriters from two journals which I suspect give slightly conflicting accounts of the true events, van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy is quite an untidy finished article. The somewhat unsubstantial source material is held together by two weighty yet tender leading turns, and the believability of Carell and Chalamet’s fractured father-and-son bond is enough to make the story worth watching.