As well as entertainment, cinema has always had the capacity to contribute to social change, highlighting important issues that often directly affect its audiences and allowing a narrative through which both catharsis and education are offered. This seems to be the intention behind Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen's first English-language film 'Beautiful Boy', the story of a father and son's relationship torn apart by drug addiction. With such an emotionally strong subject, an award-winning director and remarkable cast, one would expect 'Beautiful Boy' to be a slam dunk, both as a moving piece of cinema and as a piece of social commentary. How disappointing then that it turns out to be neither.
Based on the memoirs of David Sheff and his son Nick, the film follows David (Steve Carrell, 'Foxcatcher') and his attempt to come to terms with Nick's (Timothée Chalamet, 'Call Me By Your Name', 'Lady Bird') crippling meth addiction. Once inseparable, David watches as Nick slips away from him and spirals out of control, and as it becomes increasingly clear that Nick may be beyond help, David has to choose between trying to save his son and protecting the rest of his family.
The biggest drawcard is the two leads, and thankfully both of them turn in tremendous performances. Steve Carrell continues to demonstrate just how intelligent and versatile an actor he is, capturing the heartbreaking push-and-pull tearing David apart. There's a weary determination to his performance, and it is devastating to watch as that determination starts to crumble. And as we all hoped after his soul-shattering work in 'Call Me By Your Name', Timothée Chalamet is extraordinary as Nick, delivering a powerful, intricate and uncompromising portrait of addiction and self-destruction. The real magic of Chalamet's performance is how he never wallows in the cliché of presenting addiction, never getting caught up in obvious emotion, always grounding himself in minute details and in the dense and complex psychology that comes with meth addiction. The chemistry between the two actors is often delicate and beautiful, and together they hold the emotional heart of the film in place.
However, this just makes the inadequacies of 'Beautiful Boy' as a film all the more frustrating. Where the actors circumnavigate cliché, the film buckles under the weight of them, falling prey to focusing on emotion rather than content or character. The screenplay from Luke Davies and Van Groeningen never solves its problematic episodic structure, and with no clear through-line to follow, it ends up becoming a frustrating merry-go-round of recovery and relapse that never seems to go anywhere. Because so much of the film is a repeat of similar moments and similar challenges over and over again, it also becomes occasionally hard to tell where and when we are, with tiny time jumps that confuse the chronology further. Van Groeningen's direction also lacks a clear narrative focus, and ends up also becoming enamoured with creating emotionally affecting moments but with little time for character development. There's a sense of hopelessness to the whole film, and while that could help show how desperate the situation with drug addiction in young people is, that hopelessness just ends up leave you wondering what the point of watching the film was in the first place.
Perhaps most frustrating of all are the soundtrack choices, often so obvious that they become distracting and take you out of the film. One choice towards the end even made me groan out loud at the thundering obviousness of it, hell-bent on wringing as much tragedy out of the situation as possible, going for your heart in ways that feel cheap and lazy. There's such a determination to affect with this film, such a need to treat an important topic with appropriate weight, but that weight ends up buckling the film, and many moments that could have packed more of an emotional punch thanks to the work of Carrell and Chalamet end up feeling bloated and water-logged. In fact, the film really is at its best when aesthetics fall away and it simply focuses on their work. It also has no idea how to handle its secondary characters, especially the women, David's ex-wife and Nick's mother Vicky (Amy Ryan) and David's new wife Karen (Maura Tierney). While Tierney is given one quite powerful moment, where she's given the room to breathe amongst the stifling affectedness to explore Karen's own personal relationship with her troubled stepson, it's only one moment, and Vicki ends up functioning as a kind of antagonist, an inadequate mother ill-equipped to deal with her son's addiction. So much weight is put on David and Nick's stories that everyone else's function in the narrative suffers considerably.
There's such a determination to affect with this film, such a need to treat an important topic with appropriate weight, but that weight ends up buckling the film...
From the beginning, 'Beautiful Boy' wears its tragedy on its sleeve, but that signposting often results in a film that moves in all the obvious emotional directions. You could argue that's due to the true story source material, but there's no imagination to the filmmaking, no rigour or daring. Hell, it doesn't even have an ounce of anger or pain to it except the pain it slaps on like a lazy paint job. It has the weight that comes when a film has deemed itself important from the beginning, but while the portrait it presents of drug addiction - particularly thanks to its leads - has all the potential to be a powerful one, the inadequacies of the film itself rob us of that. In fact, apart from saying that "drug addiction is bad", I'm not entirely sure what the purpose of 'Beautiful Boy' is. Maybe it thought that this message was enough, and maybe it thought that the remarkable work of its leads - particularly Chalamet - would be enough to get it there. In the end though, 'Beautiful Boy' is just another of those prestige dramas that comes along at the end of every year with very little prestige about it and surprisingly little to say than to make us feel good as a privileged white middle-class audience that we watched an Important Film on an Important Subject and are thus a Good Person Aware Of Important Issues, without ever being forced to think about them beyond the helpful statistics that flash up as the film ends.