Forget “Halloween.” For parents, the scariest movie of the season is “Beautiful Boy.”
Felix Van Groeningen’s drama, about a family struggling to cope with a son’s drug addiction, is all the more wrenching because it avoids most of the clichés of the genre. Instead, we feel caught with this loving family in a seemingly endless cycle of recovery and relapse, highs and lows. It’s an honest and hard movie to watch, lightened by engaging, humane performances and a generous spirit.
The film is based on a pair of memoirs, “Beautiful Boy” by father David Sheff (played by Steve Carell in the film) and “Tweak” by son Nic Sheff (played by Timothee Chalamet). David is a successful magazine writer with an idyllic Marin County retreat. Nic is also a talented writer with a seemingly bright future ahead of him.
Did Nic feel pressure to live up to his father? Did David’s permissiveness with drugs, including sharing a joint with his son after graduation, send the wrong message? “Beautiful Boy” doesn’t dwell on why Nic started taking drugs, but throws us right in the middle of the relapse-recovery cycle.
Meth is Nic’s worst tormentor, but he ends up consuming all sorts of drugs, disappearing for days at a time. He comes home determined to get clean, succeeds for a while, and then slips. For most of the film we see things from David’s perspective, confused and heartbroken, not knowing how to help. Van Groeningen’s screenplay (written with Luke Davies) slips back and forth in time, so in an instant we go from seeing the bright, empathetic child Nic once was (played by Jack Dylan Grazer) to the scheming, tormented young man he has become.
Carell draws on his natural likability as an actor, and occasionally plays against it, to portray a father slowly consumed by his son’s problems, at the expense of his wife (Maura Tierney) and other children. Chalamet continues his phenomenal run from “Call Me By Your Name” and “Lady Bird.” Even though Nic does some very unlikable things as he sinks deeper and deeper, he never loses our sympathy, as Nic is propelled forward and downward by a need he doesn’t understand and can’t control. Amy Ryan has a small but key role as Nic’s mother.
Occasionally Van Groeningen cranks up the filmmaking a little too much, making the Marin County home a little too beautiful and Nic’s San Francisco haunts a little too grungy. He also has a weakness for an obvious musical cue, including Sigur Ros and, of course, John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy.”
While the scenes of Nic shooting up or stealing from his family are devastating, it was the smaller moments that got me, like David reading through Nic’s journals, his neat penmanship deteriorating into spidery, chaotic gibberish. The best scenes in the film are just conversations between Nic and David, the son trying to explain what he’s going through, the father trying to understand, and an unimaginable gulf between them.
Nic is now eight years sober (he’s a writer on Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”), and if nothing else, “Beautiful Boy” underscores what a fragile victory that is.
“I don’t think you can save someone,” David says, worn out, near the end of the film. “But you can be with them,” his ex-wife responds. “Beautiful Boy” doesn’t sugarcoat the horrors of addiction or the difficulty of recovery, but doesn’t dismiss the power of simply loving someone despite themselves.