Like a recovering addict’s fever dream, Beautiful Boy hits all the broad strokes (in no coherent order) while the details stay hazy.
Whenever I see a movie based on a book hitting theaters, a small part of me always thinks about how difficult adaptation must be. Think about it-- you have an, on average, 300-page book in front of you. You know a film can’t keep it all, you know something must be cut. That’s a tough balancing act. Cut too much, and you risk losing the important characterization that probably made the book so beloved and put you in the adapter’s seat in the first place. Cut too little, and you risk bogging the story down in detail that ultimately plays better to the literary medium. Usually, I think films tend towards the latter. Imagine then, my shock when I discovered that screenwriter/director Felix van Groeningen’s and screenwriter Luke Davies’ (writer of the excellent Lion) new project, Beautiful Boy, was based on not one, but two whole memoirs. I was expecting a viewing experience akin to slogging through marshland on my way to quicksand. Boy was I wrong.
Based on the true experiences of David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his son Nic (Timothée Chalamet), Beautiful Boy depicts Nic’s battle with addiction and the impact it had on his family over some years’ time. The ‘some years’ point is debatable, and it’s the first major problem with the film. The structure of presented events is almost impossible to follow. Scenes are consistently presented out of sequence for no apparent reason other than to overcomplicate a story that doesn’t benefit from the gimmickry. In each of these mashed together time-slices, we never get a sense of where Nic is in his battle with addiction. Even the standard movie visuals are absent as time-markers: his hair never changes, David always seems to be wearing the same sweater, David’s younger children, Nic’s half-siblings, never seem to age. It’s baffling why this was chosen as the best method to tell this story. Usually, dramas don’t need “edge of your seat” editing to keep an audience engaged, and in this case, it only puts us further away from the characters we’re supposed to be emotionally rooting for.
In another attempt at what I can only imagine was a good-hearted effort to keep the story moving, Beautiful Boy somehow succeeds in having next-to no details, characterization, or depth of any kind, and as a result, no involvement from the viewer. A drama such as this requires investment in the characters (at least for me), because going into the film, I know that addiction is sad, that it ruins lives, tears apart families. I know it’s not a pleasant experience or existence. Beautiful Boy seems content with this general kind of sadness, giving us the depth of a 30-second drunk-driving commercial stretched over two hours of runtime. Nic Sheff is a smart kid, his family says that. We also vaguely know he wants to be a writer because we see him scribbling in a notebook and, again, his dad says so when discussing college with him. Oh, he also went surfing as a kid. What’s that? You, the viewer, have more questions about the film? Why did Nic begin doing drugs? What was appealing to him about it? What other hopes, dreams, drives, or fears does he have? Well, that’s just more than the film can answer. It can tell you that Nic doesn’t like surfing anymore because, again, his dad says so. Is that because of the drugs? Who knows?
I don’t mean to be flippant about what the real Nic Sheff went through, because I can imagine it was a nightmare, but that’s just it, I have to imagine it, because Beautiful Boy gives us no sense of the depths of his struggle. The character, Nic Sheff, is not a real person. He’s a cutout imitation, thinner than paper, who never once lets on to any motivations other than the vague sense that college might be a good place for him to go. This baffling embraced detachment in a film that should be connecting us to the human side of Nic to really hammer home the tragedy of his situation and waste of his potential, instead does the opposite. Onscreen Nic is someone unable to be identified with, and therefore, unable to be cared about in a real, palpable sense.
Compounding this are Timothée Chalamet’s acting choices to be the tweakiest tweaker who ever tweaked. He’s channeling a caricature addict: random mouth twitches, baring of teeth, and slack jawed stares that had me wondering when Dave Chappelle was going to show up offering him cheeseburgers. The more internalized moments were more deftly handled, but I think Chalamet has some experience to gain before he can really explore his range and naturalism as an actor.
David’s side of the story succeeds marginally better than Nic’s. Carell’s performance, apart from a few odd choices, works as the concerned dad not wanting to push too hard, walking a tightrope between pushing Nic to get help, and the risk of alienating his son for good. David’s scenes are the only ones where we get some sort of detached knowledge about addiction, if not so much about the characters themselves. But none of it goes nearly far enough. There's no act structure, there’s no climax at all. Everything is expository, and frighteningly little of it is actually visually represented. The film plods along with the same pace and tone from beginning to end, eliciting no emotional response, instead forcing audiences to do the work, knowing that we should be feeling something.
Beautiful Boy relies too hard on the inherent sadness of its subject matter to really humanize and realize the characters whose story its telling. What we’re left with is neither substantive nor satisfying, a PSA summary of addiction and the negatives it brings. If that’s what you’re looking for, just watch the news.