London Film Festival : ‘Beautiful Boy’ Review

It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the 62nd BFI London Film Festival (10th – 21st October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.

Raphael Duhamel reviews Felix Van Groeningen’s poignant biopic on drug addition.

“Life is what happens to you, while you’re busy making other plans”

– John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy”

David Sheff had wonderful plans for his son: he would go to college, study what he loved, and have a great life. But at eighteen, Nic went to rehab for the first time. Beautiful Boy is the true story of drug addict Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet), adapted from his father’s memoir, here embodied by Steve Carell, and his own. The film’s real-life grounding helps it evade excessive pathos, and persists in that path by avoiding gratuitous scenes of substance abuse. Felix Van Groeningen directs this poignant tale with subtlety, making way for memorable displays from his two leads.

Steve Carell is finally given a part worthy of his dramatic talent, four years after Foxcatcher, with the compelling portrayal of a divorced and concerned father desperately trying to save his boy. Their crumbling relationship gives way to acting masterclasses from Chalamet and Carell, both carrying the film even in its weakest moments. Nic’s comings and goings between college and his father’s home punctuate the narrative, as a metaphorical manifestation of his sobriety and relapses. Maura Tierney, playing Karen Barbour – David’s new wife – endures her husband and step-son’s hardships with a challenging combination of distance and proximity, struggling to find the balance between protecting her own young children and indulging in David’s innumerable attempts to rescue his son. Just like her character, Tierney painfully finds her way between the two actors, in a supporting role which she commands yet never fully explores, due to its relative inconsequence in the plot.

Timothée Chalamet’s stunning performance transcends his own character, that of a wandering teenager whose desire to escape surpasses his will to live. His Renaissance allure enhances the feeling of dread and consternation which permeates the narrative, as if the audience was witnessing the slow and odious downfall of a Caravaggio model. Nic’s physical and mental collapse repulses precisely because of his pristine appearance, which he spoils with the help of methamphetamines (commonly known as Crystal Meth), resonating in this way with Jared Leto’s baby-faced Harry Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream. Each and every spectator suffers for Chalamet’s character, inevitably recognising in this poor and beautiful boy the haunting spectre of Call Me by Your Name’s Elio, whose refinement here disappears and is supplanted by a sombre, self-destructive misanthropy.

Beautiful Boy is built around a series of flashbacks which throw light on the father and son’s complicated relationship, while implicitly showing how the insidious process of addiction begins. David feels baffled and powerless because he knows that he has done nothing wrong raising his child, and the audience progressively unravels the mysteries of Nic’s life searching for answers, only to face the hard truth: there is no logic in his dependence. The picture’s brilliant opening scene, focusing on an immobile Carell seated in a doctor’s office, stuck in the centre of the frame, as he strives to understand his son’s “disease”, encapsulates his inability to act and relate to him. Their interactions during Nic’s early and pre-teen years reveal nothing out of the ordinary, bordering at times on the cliché, in this way exonerating David, and to a certain extent, his ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan).

However, these flashbacks also impede the story’s progression, significantly lessening the emotional intensity of certain scenes. Consequently, the narrative’s pace is generally unequal, offering a captivating first act followed by dragged-out developments, with the film only picking up in its last stages. The ending provides a moving and hopeful conclusion to Beautiful Boy, but the inclusion of a drug awareness message, between the last frame and the credits, accompanied by statistics of substance abuse in the United States, seemed impersonal and redundant after the two-hour drama. Nic and David Sheff’s life story is tragic and authentic enough not to be presented alongside what appeared like a public service announcement. Nevertheless, Van Groeningen’s feature prevails as a forceful and potent account of addiction, led by two actors at the peak of their artistry.

Beautiful Boy will be generally released in the UK on January 18th, 2019. Meanwhile, check out its trailer below:

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