A father tries to save his son from drug addiction in this true story based on the lives and writings of David Sheff and Nic Sheff. Beautiful Boy opens on the father, played by Steve Carell (Little Miss Sunshine), waiting up all night for his son to return home. Two days pass while Carell phones local hospitals and police, getting more desperate by the hour. There’s no traditional opening act here in which we get to know these two characters. The film immediately asks us to tap into the archetypal father/son connection at first, and then weaves flashbacks throughout the rest of the movie that deepen and illuminate the characters a bit more. I might have preferred a more traditional opening act, but this approach was interesting — more like a horror film.
From that opening sequence, things only get more and more emotionally intense. I kept waiting for the movie to become less heavy and more like most other Hollywood studio movies. But director Felix van Groeningen keeps us laser focused on the father’s attempt to save the son, and then a bit later on the son’s own inner conflict. This film shows the devastating effects of drug abuse on family members like few other films I’ve seen. There’s the heartache you’d expect from seeing a loved one become addicted, but Beautiful Boy also takes you to the next level of heartache — when you summon the courage to let the loved one go before they destroy not only themselves, but you and everyone else around you.
Carell gives another fine dramatic performance here, as do Amy Ryan (Oscar nominee for Gone Baby Gone) and Maura Tierney (E.R.) as the mother and second wife. But I have to single out young Timothée Chalamet who plays the troubled son. I was already impressed with Chalamet after seeing him in Call Me By Your Name, for which he received an Oscar nomination. But there’s a scene in the middle of Beautiful Boy that features some of the finest acting I’ve seen in years. After a long absence, the son meets up with the father at a diner. He’s clearly high, but pretending hard not to appear that way. And his ultimate goal in the meeting isn’t to make amends or to apologize — but to get money for more drugs. You can see so many forces fighting for Chalamet’s soul in this scene. Crippling shame clashes with drug-induced paranoia. Coercion courts sincerity. Desperation gives way to rage. I don’t know how a twenty-three-year-old actor already possesses such chops, but Chalamet’s got the goods. He’s the male Jennifer Lawrence and a second Oscar nomination would not be undeserved.
Groeningen gets a little too operatic at times, but I loved his very purposeful, parred down coverage of scenes and the fact that we almost never spend a second of the film outside of Carell’s or Chalamet’s perspective — until one very surprising and effective moment when Maura Tierney takes the wheel (I cried the most here). Beautiful Boy may ultimately offer hope and inspiration to viewers, but be prepared for a harrowing journey straight into the belly of the beast.