Sensitively reconstructing Beautiful Boy from the true memoirs of David Sheff and his drug-ravaged son Nicolas on film, Belgian director Felix van Groeningen and screenplay writer Luke Davies collaborate on a journey that takes us through the brutal decline of someone with a tenacious drug addiction. Someone very loved. Someone surrounded by an affluent support network and, ultimately, someone who challenges the portrayal of the stereotype of a person who develops this disease.
Comic icon Steve Carell is cast as David alongside Oscar-nominee Timothée Chalamet as his son, Nic. We see Carell adapt to a more serious role with ease, his usual glint suspended for anguish and desperation as he morphs into a father trying to help his son overcome his secretive and destructive addiction.
The film opens with David quizzing a professional for the facts on Crystal Meth, which his son is taking. He is appeased with statistical figures showing a high recovery rate and is temporarily reassured. This nescience will play havoc with viewers who know the grip this drug can have but it is a vital device Groeningen uses to authenticate how far removed from the world of narcotic dependency the family are.
A succession of timeline flashbacks present a happy childhood, filled with love, surfing trips, birthday parties and a mutual respect, all beautifully captured with lingering nostalgia-tinted cinematography from Ruben Impens and a sing-along 90s film score from Nirvana to Massive Attack. Even when, as a child, Nic’s parents divorce, the situation is carefully managed and we’re introduced to David’s new wife Karen (Maura Tierney), who is a doting, impassioned stepmother taking the boy through life’s transitions, showing that he had a positive experience and the separation is in no way an excuse for his later addiction.
Nic is gawky, awkward and somewhat shy. Chalamet easily gifts us scenes of believable desperation and drug-induced highs, although we never actually get to pinpoint when the drugs spiralled so far out of control. We root for him as he heads in and out of rehab in a bid to curb his addiction and watch the relentless devotion from his family save him after he overdoses and nearly dies.
Unfortunately, there are times Groeningen loses sense of the seedy reality, like when Nic falls in love and introduces his girlfriend to drugs, they shoot up together and the movie becomes a “coming-of-age” teen romance all of a sudden. Perhaps this is intended to make it an easier film for the masses to digest.
Credible performances, especially by the young Chalamet, and a difficult but enduringly relevant subject matter make Beautiful Boy a gripping watch – although a liberal coating of Hollywood gloss seems to tarnish what might have been a far grittier and authentic affair.
Beautiful Boy is released nationwide on 18th January 2019.
Watch the trailer for Beautiful Boy here: