Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Movie Review: Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Felix Van Groeningen.
Written by: Luke Davies and Felix Van Groeningen based on the books by David Sheff and Nic Sheff.
Starring: Steve Carell (David Sheff), Timothée Chalamet (Nic Sheff), Maura Tierney (Karen Barbour), Christian Convery (Jasper Sheff), Oakley Bull (Daisy Sheff), Kaitlyn Dever (Lauren), Amy Ryan (Vicki Sheff), Stefanie Scott (Julia), Kue Lawrence (4 & 6-Year-Old Nic Sheff), Jack Dylan Grazer (12-Year-Old NicSheff), Timothy Hutton (Dr. Brown), LisaGay Hamilton (Rose), Zachary Rifkin (8-Year-Old Nic Sheff).
At this point, we have seen countless addiction – and overcoming addiction stories. The new film, Beautiful Boy tries to sidestep many of the clichés of the genre, and tell the story of addiction in a more honest way – that it isn’t a matter of having a breakthrough, realizing some deep psychological reason for your addiction, have a good cry about it, and then get sober. That it is an ongoing problem – that people can want to get sober, and just are never able to do it – and that even with a supportive, affluent family thing can go off the rails, even after months or years of sobriety. That, at least, is the goal of Beautiful Boy – and I think had it been able to fully pull it off, perhaps we would have one of the year’s best films. As it stands though, Beautiful Boy seems pulled apart more than a little between trying to be something more raw, and a more standard, sentimental Hollywood story. By jumping around in time, the movie is more formless than I otherwise would be – perhaps this is the point, but it’s also a distraction. The performances in the film ground it – make it feel more real than perhaps it really should.
The film stars Steve Carell as David Sheff and Timothee Chalamet as his teenage son Nic – and is based on the pair of memoirs each of them wrote about Nic’s years as a drug addict. David is a journalist – a single dad living in San Francisco, who later marries a second wife, Karen (Maura Tierney), who has primary custody of his son Nic. We do, eventually, see Nic’s mother – Vicki (Amy Ryan) – who lives in L.A. – but by virtue of the fact the film is based on a book by David, she is a secondary character at best. David is the kind of liberal, touchy feely dad who likes to think he has an open, honest relationship with his son. They kind where they can tell each other everything. He knows Nic is smoking pot – but he doesn’t see it as that big of a deal. Who doesn’t smoke pot when they’re a teenager. It’s only after it’s too late that he realizes that Nic does a lot more than pot – crystal meth mostly – and he tries to spring into action. Over the years, Nic tries again and again to get sober – lasts a while, and then relapses. There seems to be almost no rhyme or reason why he relapses – he just does. And for years, David is there to help him – pick up the pieces and try again. Until, one day, he decides he can longer try – that this is going to be something Nic either does or does not on his own.
The film was directed by Felix Van Groeningen – the Belgian director best known for the Oscar nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown – about a married couple whose love is tested when their daughter gets seriously ill. That was a really good film – I wasn’t surprised to see it nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar – I was surprised it didn’t become a bigger art house hit when it was released, as it seems tailor made for that. Like Beautiful Boy, that film was also told in a kind of fractured, non-chronological structure – but it worked better there then it does here. That is because the story of Beautiful Boy by its nature repeats itself again and again – Nic is high on drugs, wants to get sober, gets sober, relapses, has a crisis, and the cycle begins fresh. While that very well may be the right cycle here – it’s also the same scene again and again.
What saves Beautiful Boy really is the performances by Carrel and Chalamet. It takes a few scenes to get past Carell – known so much for those comedic roles (although he’s been doing quite well in dramatic roles the past few years) to find his footing here as a kind of sympathetic, yet clueless, dad. He means well, but doesn’t really know what he is going – but knows enough that he doesn’t know, and tries to research it. Chalamet – coming off his breakthrough year last year with Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird – is great here at depicting the shame spiral that Nic goes through every time he relapses. He truly does love his family – but he cannot help himself. The film really is a two hander between these two performances, and they do elevate it. I do wish that they had given talented actresses like Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney – more to do in their roles (and that doesn’t even mention Kaitlyn Dever, who shows up out of nowhere late in the film, and then is jettisoned).
Beautiful Boy is an undeniably flawed film – the more I think back on it, the more flaws I do see. I wish that the affluence of the Sheff family had been mentioned – at least once – during the course of the film, because that clearly makes a difference in terms of getting help and getting sober. As well, the movie just kind of ends, apparently midstream, with no real sense of how Nic was able to get and stay sober this last time (the end title card tells us he’s been sober for 8 years – in the last scene of the film, he’s still on drugs). This, I think, points to the films ambitions – and how it doesn’t quite live up to them. It’s clear here that no one wanted to make a film like 28 Days – that Sandra Bullock vehicle from years ago, which goes through the recovery clichés mentioned above. They want to make something more akin to how addiction works. But while I think they succeed in not making the film they didn’t want to make, I’m not sure they ended up making the film they did want to make.

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