Addiction is a topic constantly put under the microscope in contemporary cinema. Despite constantly being approached from different perspectives, often we are given a portrayal of addiction, rarely of people who suffer from addiction.
In "Requiem For a Dream" (2001) we see the topic tackled in almost horror-like manner. While in "Candy"(2006), they’re given a dramatic vision of a playful teenage love gone wrong. Those movies, while good in substance, use a lot of stylistic choices that turn drug use into a bad wolf allegory.
Beautiful Boy is, in that regard, a refreshing change. Its focal point is not the drugs, but a relationship between father and son that is put to the test. Based on the memoirs of David and Nic Sheff, it tells a story of Nic’s progression through his addiction and his father’s efforts to help him get out of it. It is a highly intimate and emotional story which, rather than surprising us with a gut-wrenching ending, pulls on our emotional strings. It lets us experience a relationship challenged by drugs, not governed by it.
The story has been criticised for being simple and quite narrow. Namely, that we rarely experience scenes in which progression takes place, rather we are mostly shown times of crisis. I am of the opinion that this is a conscious choice. Since the movie is shot from the perspective of the relationship of Dave and Nic’s plot, this allows us to focus on the characters. This is what the movie achieves masterfully. The relationship dynamic is crafted with great care and has an immediate impact on the viewer.
This can be contributed to the highlight of the movie: the acting. The father-son duo portrayed by Timothee Chalamet and Steve Carrell works perfectly on the big screen. Chalamet, probably the loudest acting debut in recent years, delivers a performance so great we have difficulty believing that the same talented actor also gave us Elio in Call Me By Your Name (2017). Chalamet’s creation allows us to understand Nic and his struggles. We believe in the character fully and, not even for a second, does the role become a caricature - a pit easily fallen into with a role of this nature. Chalamet’s performance is perfectly balanced by Steve Carell’s. Carell, time and time again, proves to be a versatile actor who is able to play a wide-range of characters with different emotional sensibilities. In this duet, neither overshadows the other and as a result they both deliver a great, nuanced performance.
Despite the great acting, there are a few things that do not work in favour of the movie, the first being the retrospectives. Woven throughout the movie are short scenes of the father-son relationship back when everything was happier. While they create a certain contrast they do not add anything to the story. I would even go as far as to say that they ruin the pace and push the movie into "cheesy" territory. Because of this, the style of the movie is not quite clear either. The raw and emotionally heavy overtones do not go well with the cliché, idyllic retrospectives; even if seen as a contrasting device.
Another aspect of the movie which could raise a few eyebrows is the music choices. In the opening sequence we are hit with an interesting choice: a song filled with pathos, heavy and emotional which does not go along with what is going on screen. It hijacks our attention and seems to dictate how we are supposed to feel. Such a heavy-handed choice in a movie marketed as somewhat "indie" is simply out of place and cheap. This does not mean, however, that the whole of the soundtrack is sub-par. The vast majority of the songs are great and fit in nicely with the scenes. We get a lot of classic artists in the film, like David Bowie, Sigur Ros and Tim Buckley. My personal favourite appears in the second act of the movie: Nirvana’s Territorial Pissings, which in my opinion is the only time when the retrospectives add anything to the story - and what they do is equally as beautiful as the song which accompanies them.
Despite some issues that are nevertheless important to address, the movie finds its voice. What speaks for its success is the masterful acting of Chalamet and Carell which leaves us filled with heaviness long after leaving the cinema. I would recommend going to see Beautiful Boy, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon when the city is a little quieter and you have the capacity to delve into the movie fully.
Edited by Eloïse Wright, Head Film Editor