There is a scene in Beautiful Boy that sums up my frustrations with this movie more than any other scene. Someone near the middle of the film after one of Nic’s (played by Timothée Chalamet) rehab stints he is outside with his little brother and sister. They are running through the sprinkle and having a joyous time. Nic’s father, David (played by Steve Carell), looks onward from his chair laughing in happiness at the beautiful sight he is seeing. Never once do we ever cut back to see this expression of laughter or happiness creating a very cold and uninvolved emotional moment.
Beautiful Boy is directed by Felix van Groeningen and is based on the memoirs of both the real-life Nic and David (the books are called Tweak and Beautiful Boy respectively). The film attempts to combine the two stories to tell the story from Nic and David’s perspectives. One, the concerned father and the other a drug-addicted young adult struggling to get clean.
This is no doubt a personal tale. This is a tale, on paper, that has all the making of an incredible story; a story that many would assume would be up for Oscars later on in the year. Watching the movie, I get the sense I would probably enjoy reading the books that Nic and David wrote. Unfortunately, the film that Felix van Groeningen directs is impersonal with a screenplay that can’t decide how to accurately tell this story of father and son making for a well-acted but cold feature about addiction that should have been one of the most moving experiences of the year.
Groenigen’s storytelling starts on rocky footing and never recovers. In the opening minutes of the movie, we cut back forth between little flashbacks and flash-forwards so many times that I lost track. The problem is these never feel natural. These memories are afterthoughts and there to serve as a way to briefly show the happy times between father and son. These moments show us something, but they are never given room to feel alive.
Groeningen quickly starts using these flashbacks to juxtapose with Nic’s current trouble with drugs. A juxtaposition doesn’t work if we don’t have a feel for the characters or their situation. The movie wastes no time throwing you into the fire of drug addiction which doesn’t allow for the relationship between Nic and David to fully form. We are told they are close and are shown briefly when they were, but the movie doesn’t want to the legwork to convince us. Halfway through the movie I still struggled to believe that Chalamet and Carell were father and son. I don’t think it was a lack of chemistry either (as both actors do share some good scenes together), the story beats between them just don’t work.
By throwing the audience immediately in the middle of the drug addiction, the movie feels like it is composed entirely of third acts. What I mean by that is typically before going into the third act we have the character at a low point that they must overcome in the third act. Beautiful Boy has at least three of those moments. By having three of these moments, it feels like the movie should be wrapping up at three separate occasions but never does.
Groenigen probably thought by structuring his film this way he would bring us into an addicts world of highs and lows, rehabs and relapses. However, the opposite happens. Halfway through I felt the movie already played all the cards it had to play and most of what followed was redundant. There are ways to take us through the world of addiction without making it feel repetitive, or you are always stuck at the lowest of lows. Just a few weeks ago I thought Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born did an excellent job of taking us through the world of alcoholism without being repetitive or exhausting. I should have been exhausted by the emotional moments in the movie, but instead, I was tired because I felt like it was over at several points. By the end, Beautiful Boy doesn’t end with much of a difference with where we started. There is some change but since we start where we do at the beginning of the movie it never feels like we are on a journey with these characters, only a snapshot of moments.
Some of these moments are made well, but some others aren’t. The emotion of the movie is powered by the performances of the actor and not the choices made by the director. The performance fromTimothée Chalamet is terrific (even though they didn’t really bother trying to him look like a drug addict teen. Don’t worry, Tim still has his perfect hair, teeth and only seems a little tired) and so is Steve Carrell. Even before Foxcatcher I always felt Carell would be good in dramatic films and he has proven to be more than up to the task. Beautiful Boy is no different. The real unsung performance of this movie is Amy Ryan (Carell’s Office co-star) who unfortunately doesn’t get enough screen time in the story to make a significant impact. When she finally does appear she makes the entire scene sign with a genuine sense of emotions.
Beautiful Boy is a compelling story, just not a well-told story or a good film. When I first saw the trailer, I was excited. But the execution of a story of love, family, and addiction left me baffled, tired and confused by creative choices (the music choices are also odd, to say the least). I do want to go read the book now, but that’s to supplement from the disappointing feature. The performances of Carell, Cham, and Ryan can only do so much. Despite a beautiful looking film, the scattershot narrative is disorienting, and the entire movie feels like one giant third act. Coming out of the theater I would say I heard mostly praises of the film. Give the Beautiful Boy a try if the subject matter interests you. I personally think this story, and these actors deserve a better movie.