'Beautiful Boy' review: Addiction is a family disease
Directed by Felix van Groeningen, 'Beautiful Boy' finds Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet trying to map the thorny territory of unconditional love and addiction
By Ryan Aliapoulios
Of Alcoholics Anonymous clichés, David Foster Wallace wrote that the vapider the cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it conceals. In that sense, it’s fitting that 'Beautiful Boy', directed by Felix van Groeningen, is a movie full of AA clichés. Still, your susceptibility to them may depend on your familiarity with the material.
The movie is based on addiction memoirs by father and son authors David and Nic Sheff, played by Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, respectively. Among other addiction-tinged tales, David and Nic are responsible for writing 'Beautiful Boy' and 'Tweak', both best-selling books describing the shared experience of dealing with methamphetamine addiction from opposite perspectives.
Aptly enough, the story begins with David pitching an essay to the New York Times about his son. David is clearly desperate to help Nic in any way he can, and Carell plays him with a spluttering and sincere ineffectuality. As it turns out, much of David’s approach is inflected by his own expectations of his “beautiful boy.” At his worst, some of them attempt to dodge his own culpability. Of all the common recovery aphorisms to invoke here, the one that rings truest is that addiction is a family disease.
Chalamet plays Nic with shambolic perfection, striking an easy balance between despondence and genuine warmth. Similarly, the story itself comes together in bits and tatters, incorporating different perspectives and timelines. As this is primarily a father-and-son love story, however, Carell and Chalamet do most of the dramatic heavy lifting.
Throughout the story, Nic and David do a dance of secrecy in most of their scenes together. In one moment, David rifles through his son’s journals after Nic doesn’t come home for two days. In another, Nic, clearly dope-sick, asks his dad if he can borrow the car to go to an AA meeting. While both men appear to have good intentions, what surfaces again and again is that they just aren’t as close as they were during Nic’s youth.
The misty bluffs of Marin County, north of San Francisco, serve as an all-too-apt metaphor for the foggy causality of addiction and mental illness. As David watches the waves and reflects on the past, there’s a constant undertow of guilt about where he, as a father, went wrong. Was it his rocky divorce that laid the groundwork for all these problems? Was it when he shared a joint with Nic late in high school? Was it even earlier when he let Nic drink Coca-Cola at a diner before putting him on a plane alone to visit his mother in LA?
The psychodrama is certainly effective, if a little rote. Still, the movie’s distant gaze goes a long way in building paranoid atmosphere. At every turn, easy answers elude our twin protagonists while seeming to hide in plain sight. As David wrings his hands over what he sees as a change in Nic’s character, his son tearfully confesses: “this is who I am.” In another scene, Nic has 14 months’ sobriety and gives a speech at a meeting about rebuilding his life, post-methamphetamine. At the end, he speaks delicately of his mother and father, who are in attendance. “I just want them to be proud of me,” he says through a grimace.
In moments like these, the film’s central emotional dilemma becomes clear: is David’s projection of Nic keeping Nic unwell? Or is Nic projecting his own self-loathing onto his father? At its best, 'Beautiful Boy' tries to map the thorny territory of unconditional love. If two people hide so much of themselves from one another, the movie seems to suggest, they by definition can’t really love each other. And if the love from those closest to us is false, what hope do we have of surviving in the outside world?
For their part, the filmmakers offer no simple solutions—and they often go out of their way to muddy the waters. In one scene, David tries crystal meth himself to better understand his son (or is it just to generate drama for his essay?). In another, an Al-Anon meeting implies that David and his wife should give up on their son for their own mental health. After everything, the argument that remains is that we ought not to give up on the people we claim to love. The ending, when it comes, is abrupt and not altogether hopeful.
For all its gut-wrenching moments, I never felt the need to look away or cry during the film. If I had to guess, I think audiences are likely to be left frustrated and confused—and not everyone will be comfortable with that. Though the movie argues there may be problems with how we treat addiction, the problems within the family ring out even louder. Above all, the story is a mirror image of the current American addiction crisis: all questions and no resolutions. How much do we really know about addiction? How much do we really know about each other?