Film review, by Jason Day, of Beautiful Boy, starring Steve Carell as real-life journalist David Sheff who spends nine years trying to cure his son of a serious drug addiction. Co-starring Timothee Chalamet.
Journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell) lives a happy and comfortable life with his bright teenage son Nick (Timothee Chalamet) by his first marriage, second wife Karen (Maura Tierney) and their two adorable young children. One day, Nick disappears for several days and when he returns it is obvious to David he has been using drugs. Rehab, whilst initially successful, soon gives way to a prolonged period of recover and relapse. Throughout the long years of Nick’s illness, David sticks by him – but how long can his tolerance last?
Review, by @Reelreviewer
Well, here’s a frothy and fun comedic confection of a film to while away a cold Friday night!
To summarise the movie’s message – as if any summary were needed – drugs (the type you don’t get from a chemist or Boots) are bad.
Now, on with the rest of the review.
Let me start at the end and work my from there. After all, that is the style employed by this story as it jumps peripatetically from future, to present, to past and all stages in between. Annoying at the start, as the narrative develops, this approach rightly mirrors the toing and froing in the Sheff house and the chemical confusion in Nick’s body and over-stimulated brain.
Spelt out across the screen during the closing credits are clear and unarguable messages about the scale of the addiction epidemic in the States and the services toiling to battle it.
After watching this film, you’d be forgiven for thinking if the long, draining slog to remedy this will be achieved and if financially any government can support that.
Addiction is described by Chalamet’s advocate as a cancer, and the addicted certainly have a tumorous effect on those around them – they are an illness themselves. Nick monopolises the bodies and minds of his father, mother and step-family to such a degree that his hoped for recovery becomes an addiction for them.
Drugs, drugs, drugs and more drugs – where did it being? Where will it end?
There are questions, hints and motifs dotted around the film about how Nick’s addiction actually started. How did this seemingly perfect child one day suddenly spring up as a sweating, vomiting, over-dosing mess?
Of course, in real-life , these things gain momentum gradually, perniciously, but in pursuing the cinematic desire to shock and discomfit, we lose this subtlety here.
Still, at the beginning of the film David picks up a book in Nick’s room after the first incident. It’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned, in which the main character is an alcoholic.
Is the cause biological? Is it inherited? A casual conversation about drug taking – as father and son enjoy a male-bonding spliff – reveals that David indulged in his youth and does as a mature adult on occasion. Did he pass this tendency on to his boy? Perhaps this implicit guilt explains David’s obsessional need to cure Nick. With two younger angelic, blonde children, is this a desperate desire to prove he hasn’t sired a whole brood of dud kids?
Those questions and more remain unanswered and this is part of the problem I had with what is a very moving film – it doesn’t go the distance. It’s too – square and bland. Yes, even despite the gritty subject matter.
That’s not to say the writers and director aren’t, on occasion, game. There are moments that show how more interesting this movie could have been – if they weren’t so callow in following Sheff’s written account to the letter.
Sheff, at his wits ends as to why his son has been overwhelmed by drugs, scores some whilst investigating downtown San Francisco – awash with drunks and junkies – with the zeal of a dyed in the wool investigative hack and has a try at using them. This arresting side to his dilemma, that he is so consumed by his desire to know more about this affliction that he will take his child’s preferred poison to enter his world, is quickly dealt and dispensed with. Obviously they went for accuracy, but I felt they chucked an opportunity to make this movie crackle – they chickened out, at least my interest felt as much.
That the film has emotional wallop is down to the skilful playing of the male actors. This is after all a film about a father’s love for his son, but did the women in this story have to be so marginalised?
Tierney (from TV’s E.R.) does well in the thankless role of the stepmother. Cinematic stepmother’s – rather like those in fairytales – are rarely positive, supportive women, so it’s great to see one who goes the distance in accepting her non-genetic ward. But did she have to be so mute? Her character is clearly an intelligent, artistic and expressive woman, but Tierney is relegated to looking disconsolate, pursing her lips in passive aggressive fury.
Nick’s biological mother is only heard over the phone for the first half of the film, screeching at David and seemingly neglecting her duties. But neither parent is that effective. Nick is a child who is dumped on air stewardesses to look after when he he takes a solo flight to see Mommy Dearest in L.A. Wow! And they collectively scratched their heads about why he became an addict, when his Dad couldn’t be bothered to take a few hours out to accompany him (the flight time is only 90 mins)? Talk about feeling unloved and unwanted.
Carell and Chalamet work perfectly together, with Chalamet’s relative lack of experience working for him. He’s a bit of a punk actor, coasting and not entirely convincing, but he just about grasps the twitchy, neurotic neediness of a young man whose body craves the dark things in life.
Carell is superb, drilling into the audience’s psyche as a parent whose utter devotion to protecting and supporting his young overwhelms him. There are a few teary moments, despite the film’s rather fuzzy moral stance, but Carell conveys more in a single, anguished, frozen look than most actors can with a page of the best Hollywood dialogue.
In the final analysis, life is a bit like the in and out of drug rehabilitation. Nick’s constant relapses and restarts, David re-marrying and starting a new family, one of Nick’s parents having sole responsibility and then, for another year, the next takes over. In the end, Tierney has to force an admission from David that he finally accepts – some people are unable to be cured. They will always be addicts and will eventually succumb to it.
I won’t give the ending away but let me say that, like life, there are up’s and down and twists and turns as you get there – and you’ll shed the odd tear, too.
Cast & credits
Director: Felix van Groeningen. 2hrs (120 mins). Amazon Studios/Big Indie Pictures/Plan B Entertainment. (15)
Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Brad Pitt.
Writers: Luke Davies, Felix van Groeningen.
Camera: Ruben Impens.
Music: Bob Bowen et al.
Sets: Ethan Tobman.
Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Timothy Hutton, Oakley Bull, Christian Convery, Amy Aquino.