Beautiful Boy movie review: emotionally wrenching drug depiction (LFF 2018)

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Beautiful Boy green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

This portrait of drug addiction and its impact on a family may be Hollywood sleek and smooth, but its authenticity is in the empathy, in the lack of judgment. Steve Carell is absolutely heartbreaking.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love Steve Carell
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

It’s all a little bit Hollywoodized, maybe: I’m not sure that hot young actor Timothée Chalamet — so instantly beloved by movie fans for his masculine beauty and his sensitive talent, as in last year’s romantic drama Call Me by Your Name — ever looks, in Beautiful Boy, like someone in the grips of an addiction to crystal meth, among other substances with the capacity to ravage the human body. But that’s okay, because this uncompromising drama is honest and unpretty where it counts: emotionally, particularly in its focus less on the addict himself than on how his family copes with his addiction.

What is a father to do...
What is a father to do…

Beautiful Boy is based partly on the 2007 memoir Tweak [Amazon US] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon UK] [iTunes US] [iTunes Canada] [iTunes UK], by Nic Sheff, the real-life version of Chalamet’s teen substance abuser, but also — and with slightly more emphasis, it seems — on the 2008 book (of the same title as the film) his journalist father, David Sheff, wrote about trying to be the best support he could be for his addict son. And the awful, inescapable tragedy of this first big film from Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) — written with Luke Davies (Life) — is that sometimes, there simply is nothing you can truly do to help someone you love, that they can only help themselves.

What comfort could there be, for a parent, in knowing that you are responsible for your child’s addiction?

It’s a long, painful journey that the elder Sheff takes — along with his ex-wife, Nic’s mother, Vicki (Amy Ryan: Monster Trucks, Bridge of Spies), and his new partner, Karen Barbour (Maura Tierney: Baby Mama, Semi-Pro) — to come to this terrible realization. Steve Carell (Battle of the Sexes, The Big Short) is absolutely heartbreaking as David in a performance that is spare and tough and all about keeping fear under tight rein lest it get the better of him. So this man’s desperation to help his son takes a form that, we may presume, he is already comfortable with and well versed in: that of a journalist. David creates for himself the oh-so reasonable project of researching addiction and how it can be treated, and along the way learns such nightmares as how crystal meth changes the brain to a degree that makes it almost impossible to come off it once you try it. He talks to experts, examines various rehab options, even experiments on himself by snorting cocaine, in an attempt to understand just what sort of pleasure his son is getting from his drug use.

But David’s brain and body are not those of a drug addict. The coke does nothing for him except leave him with a hangover. And that becomes part of the journey, too: coming to the conclusion that there is nothing and no one to blame for Nic’s addiction except the quirks of brain chemistry. (No, David and Vicki’s divorce isn’t responsible. Neither is David sharing a joint with Nic as a slightly younger teen, as we see in a flashback.) In some ways that adds another level of tragedy, and an ironic one: What possible comfort could there be, for a parent, in knowing that you yourself are responsible for your child’s addiction? But at least it would be an explanation. Except there isn’t one.

...when there’s nothing he can do to help his son?
…when there’s nothing he can do to help his son?

Nic’s side of the horror is not ignored: Chalamet proves that the fandom for his talent is not misplaced with a performance full of helpless fury and fragile vulnerability. “This doesn’t feel like a disease,” he rages at a sponsor during one stint in NA; earlier Nic had described his addiction as a way to “fill this big black hole in me.” And so that is another tragedy: your own brain is trying to trick you, when you’re an addict. Your own brain lies to you.

Beautiful Boy is sleek and smooth. Maybe it’s not messy enough, viscerally, when it comes to the physical realities of drug addiction. But this movie has a deeply moving power to gently educate about that messier reality. The authenticity here is in the empathy, in the lack of judgment, in the struggle to understand an issue that is too often dismissed as a matter of personal weakness or lack of willpower or taking an easy way out of one’s problems. That’s an important part of depiction, too.

viewed during the 62nd BFI London Film Festival

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