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Non-Review Review: Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy is a cocktail essentially comprised of three contrasting main ingredients, none of which particularly gel.

Most obviously, it is a traditional performance-driven piece of awards fare designed to showcase the talents of Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carrell; there is a lot of shouting, a lot of confrontation, a lot of listless staring. On top of that, it is also a more modern piece of awards fare, one younger and hipper than stodgy old dramas about addiction; Beautiful Boy might be a good seventy-percent intercut montage set to music of beloved artists like David Bowie and John Lennon. The remaining third is a fifties moral panic anti-drugs film for the twenty-first century.

This movie is Timothée Chala-meh.

These three styles of film are constantly battling within Beautiful Boy. There must be a way to synthesise these three competing approaches into a holistic and satisfying piece of work, but instead Beautiful Boy bounces frantically from one mode to another, never settling on a single cohesive tone or approach. This is disappointing, as Beautiful Boy is a very earnest and sincere piece of work. There’s a strong sense that the film is trying to articulate something that is both important and profound. However, it just cannot clearly translate that sentiment into speech.

Beautiful Boy is a mess of a film, but a fascinating mess in a number of places.

Yes. Most of the screenshots of this film will be of Timothée Chalamet. Why?

Beautiful Boy is perhaps least interesting when it is transparently in “awards film” mode, when the script and the direction are consciously trying to frame the narrative around the familiar rhythms of these types of stories. Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carrell are very strong dramatic actors, as anybody with any familiarity with their work will attest. They are supported by two perennially underrated performers with Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan cast in secondary roles amid this addiction drama.

However, Beautiful Boy falters when it tries to offer the stock beats for these performance-driven movies, when it tries to cue up awards show clips for Chalamet and Carrell, providing moments for the two actors to scream at one another and at the supporting cast as expressions of pure and unfiltered emotion. At one point, Carrell frantically screams, “My son is out there and I don’t know how to help him!” Tierney screams back, “You can’t!” The situation is undoubtedly heightened and charged, but these scenes tip the movie over into melodrama.

Hold on.

Beautiful Boy is based on a set of memoirs by David and Nic Sheff. The father and son endured a horrific trial, when Nic succumbed to drug addiction while at college. Beautiful Boy is very much framed through their eyes, even opening with a sequence in which David is identified as a reporter who is trying to investigate and uncover the truth behind his son’s addiction. There is a candidness and vulnerability in this, with the bulk of the film devoted to scenes focusing on David and Nic – whether alone or together.

However, this creates a few narrative problems of its own. While this central relationship provides an emotional core for the film itself, it does occasionally mean that Beautiful Boy feels too anchored to the experiences of David and Nic. Both David and Nic are (rightly or wrongly) quick to acknowledge that David may have played some part in his son’s addiction, the film offers a very moving and sympathetic portrayal of David as a man who moves heaven and earth for his son. Beautiful Boy devotes entire montages to David’s profound efforts to understand Nic’s experiences.

Oh, boy.

On the other hand, Beautiful Boy is a lot rougher in the treatment of Nic’s mother, Vicki. A not insignificant amount of Beautiful Boy involves David shouting down the phone at Vicki for her failures to protect Nic. “Why didn’t you check on him?” David demands. “You were supposed to be looking after him!” While David’s own willingness to accept responsibility is juxtaposed with his earnest and sustained efforts to understand, the accusations made against Vicki go largely unanswered. David’s anger is never portrayed as flawed or unreasonable; ill-judged or ill-considered.

David’s second wife, and Nic’s stepmother, gets a little bit more development. Karen is portrayed as very patient with Nic’s addiction, very understanding of his situation. At a few points in the film, she is suggested to be wary of Nic in circumstances beyond his drug use, particularly around his step-siblings. At the same time, Karen is mostly presented as more reasonable and grounded than Vicki. At the same time, there is something uncomfortable in how the film seems to anchor David’s eventual decision to distance him from Nic in the context of Karen’s understandable anxiety.

“What I want to know is, where are the parents?”

The issue is that Vicki and Karen are afforded very little room for development. This is primarily down to the fact that so much of the movie is given over to an extended series of montages. Credited on the screenplay, director Felix Van Groeningen spends a lot of Beautiful Boy trying to develop emotional through lines. Beautiful Boy occasionally feels like a trippy dream, in which characters bounce from present crises to emotionally connected flashbacks; juxtapositions with earlier interactions provide necessary context for current interactions.

Van Groeningen has adopted a looser storytelling style, largely eschewing the framework of the standard addiction plot for something a lot more moody and atmospheric. Beautiful Boy moves from one scene to another based on emotion rather than plot, which is a fascinating way to tell a story like this. The classic pop and rock soundtrack grates a little, feeling just a little too cool and a little too hip, but it skillfully conveys a sense of feeling rather than a more literal sense of character or story.

Not at all watered down.

The big problem, however, is that this looser structure grates against the formulaic beat. Beautiful Boy flows for stretches of ten to twenty minutes along this abstract stream-of-consciousness exploration of addiction and familial tension, only to grind to a halt for a sequence that is intended to showcase Carrell and Chalamet as actors. There is a sense that the polished exterior of Beautiful Boy is very much at odds with the old reliable engine that drives it. Van Groeningen never manages to reconcile the push-and-pull between these two approaches.

Things get even messier when the third element is added to the mix. There are moments in which Van Groeningen approaches Beautiful Boy as a timely update on a moral panic film about the dangers of recreational drugs, in the style of those “reefer madness” films of the fifties. It is an interesting approach to the material in a twenty-first century context, but it can work. Requiem for a Dream notably and successfully approached the concept of addiction as a horror story.

A convincing counter argument.

There is an extended sequence early in Beautiful Boy when David attempts to investigate the dangers of crystal meth. A heavy duty synth rises ominously on the soundtrack, as David sits in a darkened office. The glow of the monitor casts his face a deathly blue. His eyes widen as he browses wikipedia. At the same time, he leafs through his son;s journal detailing his growing addiction, complete with helpfully monstrous illustrations and steadily devolving penmanship. A doctor points David to an MRI. “Here,” the doctor explains, “the amygdala is screaming.”

It is absurd and ridiculous, almost verging into self-parody. Even beyond the heavy-handed musical choices, Beautiful Boy features wonderfully over-the-top background music. As David decides that Nic might be beyond redemption, a Gregorian chant plays over the soundtrack and the camera pushes slowly in on Nic as he stands at the edge of a cliff. At a meeting for family members of addicts, angelic voices rise on the soundtrack as one speaker declares, “We mourn the living.”

A bitter pill.

This could all work, if it were managed carefully. There is room for a heightened and stylised exploration of a topic as profoundly unsettling and affecting as drug addiction. To many people who have lived through addiction, or have lived with friends and families struggling with addiction, the process might be comparable to a horror story. However, as with the difficulty reconciling a poppy and experimental mood piece with more traditional performance-driven awards fare, Beautiful Boy cannot make all of these elements work in tandem.

The result is a film that is interesting in places, but almost always in different and competing ways. Beautiful Boy works for short stretches, but never cohesively.

One Response

  1. Oh no, I was actually looking forward to this one

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