+ Recommended – R, Drama (120 minutes)
Recovery, relapse, repeat. Felix van Groeningen’s Beautify Boy, based on a pair of best-selling memoirs by David and Nic Sheff, targets the most vulnerable aspects of our human existence and attempts to show how addiction and substance abuse can tear a family apart. It’s exhausting, it’s harrowing, but most of all, it’s life. And Beautiful Boy puts this facet of life on display for everyone to see, good or bad.
A recently graduated student, Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet), battles depression and substance abuse. He has supportive parents and a fairly decent life in California, but the drugs overshadow all of the advantages in Nic’s life . His father, David (Steve Carell), does everything in his power to assist Nic’s addiction; rehab trips, money, a place to stay when his son is in need. But it simply is never enough to completely fix the problem so Nic can get healthier.
In Groeningen’s film, the narrative is structured in a non-linear format. And, as I sat there watching, I couldn’t help but ask myself if it could have been done in a different way. One of the big complaints I heard coming out of TIFF was that critics had a hard time following the timeline of events. There are no title cards or other readable indicators that a passage of time has occurred, rather contextual clues: age of characters, setting, dialogue. But it was never, at least for me, unclear where the narrative shifted. However, these sudden flashbacks may interrupt the immersion you hold with the present events. Truly, as I reflect on the film, there is no other effective way to communicate their story. A present-day setting with a linear story structure ran the potential of being too dull and repetitive.
Nic’s collapse into the shallows of drug addiction is heart-wrenching. Chalamet’s performance is certain to land him an Academy nomination. He’s able to portray the desperate nature of substance abusers as they chase their best high, all the while becoming increasingly aggravated with their surrounding environment. His eyes capture anger, pain, and even confusion, too. Nic doesn’t want to lie or steal, and Chalamet stresses this within his performance. With each role, Chalamet’s own mannerisms breathe fresh life into his characters. Instead of simply reading the lines on the page, he acts them out. A cheek twitch or an unusual movement catch the viewer off guard, and separate his ability among the other talent.
Not only has it been a couple good years for Chalamet, Carell has established himself as a dramatic actor. With films like Foxcatcher and the upcoming Welcome to Marwen, I’m sure the Academy won’t be able to overlook him either. I’ll reserve my judgement on whether or not he will get a nomination until after I see Welcome to Marwen. David Sheff does everything in his power to help his son, until he can’t. He even tries the drugs to understand why Nic’s life is spiraling out of control, running the risk of getting addicted himself. The amount of empathy you draw for both these characters is unreal; you don’t just want to help Nic, you want to support David through his struggles as a parent — thanks to a powerful, gripping performance from both Carell and Chalamet.
If anyone has had a past with addiction, alcohol or drugs, this might be a tough watch. And I say that as someone who’s lost three family members to addiction. But the context the film provides for suffering families — because addiction doesn’t just happen to minorities or to the poor — is important, and should be dissected to reiterate the fact that this can happen to anyone at anytime. It’s all too relevant when the opioid epidemic is sweeping across America, taking life after life. No, it’s most likely not what people are scurrying out to the theatres to see, but it should be. Because this story likely means everything to someone you know.