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I caught up with my family after seeing “Beautiful Boy.” They asked what the movie was about. I hesitated. I knew the reaction I was going to get: grunts and eye rolls. A father and son dealing with the son’s addiction to crystal meth and his repeated attempts at rehab does sound one note, an indie stereotype. Truth be told, it kind of is. But there’s more to the movie than that. How much may be debatable, but there’s enough more to elevate it to something worth watching.
Based on memoirs by David and Nicholas Sheff, the movie opens with David (Steve Carell) calling local hospitals searching for his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet), who’s hasn’t come home from the night before. He’s understandably upset, but there’s something routine about his actions. This has happened before. Nic turns up two days later, going straight to bed, leaving his car outside with an unexplained broken headlight. His father doesn’t fly into a rage, as you might expect. He’s calm, quietly trying to get an explanation. Theirs is not a typical relationship. But this latest excursion leads to Nic’s first trip to rehab and a seemingly never-ending cycle of addiction and recovery that pushes at that special bond between father and son.
“Beautiful Boy” is narrow in its interests. The story adheres solely to the cyclical, repetitive routine of Nick’s high and sober periods. Look, there’s no way to make that interesting from beginning to end. But the movie is admirable for what it does within that monotonous framework. It doesn’t posit any easy answers to the problem. There’s no “HUZZAH!” moment where Nic realizes what’s been missing from his life and suddenly snaps out of his drug habit. Equally, there isn’t any arm-chair psychology trying to easily explain the root of Nick’s problem. There’s a refreshing honesty that doesn’t force meaning or profundity on you.
It’s a subdued movie, but not inert, using untraditional scene structure and a varied soundtrack to move the story along. Music is important to the film—even the title is based on a John Lennon song, which David sings to Nic as a little boy—and the song choices throughout are tasteful, leaning toward respectable indie cred that are used in compelling ways. Massive Attack’s “Protection” and Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings” take the viewer from present to the past. Music plays softly in the background, as it gets louder we go back to a time when the characters are listening to that same song. The editing in these sequences becomes more complex. Sometimes a character will say something in the present day, but the response will come in flashback. It’s complicated but elegantly put together, creating a rewarding rhythm that’s more engaging than a strictly linear presentation.
There is cliché in the film’s viewpoint: yet another story about rich white people and their problems. Nic lives in a beautiful, secluded home outside San Francisco, all wood paneling and glass. David is a successful freelance journalist happily married to his second wife Karen (Maura Tierney), an artist who even paints on the trees around their home. It’s a warm household where Nic, also adored by his two younger half-siblings, is shown love and affection. Yet, despite all of this, he still feels empty and fills that void with drugs. In a worse movie, he’d come off as a spoiled kid. But emphasizing that happy home makes the point that addiction isn’t a choosy illness, anyone can succumb to it, even a child of a well-to-do family with strong, loving relationships.
How those spiny tendrils of addiction take hold is conveyed convincingly by Timothée Chalamet. Nominated for an Oscar just last year, he’s as good as ever here, nicely underplaying the role. There’s a clear delineation between sober and under the influence Nic. And these differences aren’t dependent on wild mannerisms and gesticulations. Late in the film, despite a lengthy run of recovery, Chalamet expresses with just a look the abyss that is, for whatever reason, going to swallow Nic again.
Carell does a fine job too, even though I’ve had a hard time accepting him as a dramatic actor. His Michael Scott from “The Office” is so indelible, so tied to his mannerisms, it’s hard to separate the actor from that character. His performance here is the closest he’s come to making me forget Michael Scott. He’s warm, paternal, but his quiet desperation is palpable.
The film has a fitting end that slots in nicely with what’s come before, steering clear of a tidy resolution. But it’s undone by a title card after fading to black that turns the movie into a PSA (complete with phone number for addiction sufferers). It’s admirable, of course, but after, a slightly long two hours of valiantly struggling against being a Lifetime Movie, that title card reminds that “Beautiful Boy,” basically, is still just that. Of course, Lifetime Movies are rarely this well made.