TORONTO – “There are moments when I look at him,” David Sheff says, “this kid I raised, who I thought I knew inside and out… and I don’t know who he is.” David is a journalist — he wrote the last John Lennon and Yoko Ono interview for Rolling Stone — so he would eventually turn the story of his family’s struggle with his son’s addiction into a memoir. Said son, Nic Sheff, would do the same. Belgian Director Felix Van Groeningen (“The Broken Circle Breakdown“) combines those volumes in “Beautiful Boy,” a painfully sincere picture that does its very best to dodge the conventions of the rehab movie – established in “Clean and Sober,” “28 Days,” “Permanent MidnightTIFF and more made-for-TV efforts than you can shake an AA chip at – but never quite forges its own path. It’s crystal clear on what it doesn’t want to be; it’s less clear on what it does.
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David and Nic are played here by Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, who forge a convincing bond; we do indeed glimpse how close they once were, that David was a nice guy parent (maybe too nice), the cool dad who’ll smoke with the kid once he turns 18, not expecting that they’ll soon be sitting in front of rehab centers, saying things like “This got out of hand, don’tcha think?”
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The chronologically freewheeling script, by Luke Davis and Van Groeningen, thankfully spares us the scene where young Nic gets hooked or whatever; we get the details of Nic’s addictions at roughly the same time David does, so the early scenes are less about exposition than mood, in the way if feels when things begin to spin out of control. David wanders through the house in the middle of the night, despairing about the empty bedroom; he calls hospitals; he drives around aimlessly, well aware of the low likelihood that he’ll actually find Nic out there, but certain that he has to be doing something.
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The role makes sublime use of Carell’s unshakable likability – you feel his desperation, and his desire to make this into something he can control. Ever the journalist, he decides to learn everything there is to know about crystal meth, his son’s drug of choice; in the interest of research, he even tries it himself. But it’s not the kind of thing you can puzzle out, and nothing in the movie is more truthful than his son’s explanation of why he does it: “When I tried it, I felt better than I ever had. So I kept doing it.”
Van Groeningen sleekly interweaves past and present, so a tough scene like that might butt up against a glowing memory, like the father taking care of the sick little boy, singing him Lennon’s title song. (Carrel does some of his best acting there — so open, and raw, and kind.) But all that gentleness and understanding has to crack eventually, and boy does it. Stories like this are never just about recovery; they’re about the cycle of relapse and recovery, and where trust fits into all of it. They’re about happy endings that are temporary at best.
The young, desperate addict is the kind of role most actors will kill for because it is full of opportunities to show off. But Chalamet won’t be enticed; even in scenes of twitchiness and tears, you will not catch him acting. He finds the emotional core of this character, and hangs onto it for dear life, even when he’s at his worst, insisting “I’ve got five days now” when he’s clearly, clearly loaded. And even in that state, he can still see through his father’s façade. “I was this amazing thing, your special creation,” he notes, “And you don’t like who I am now.” He’s right; one of the subtle yet undeniable truths of this story is the way embarrassment becomes one of the key motivations for his father’s actions.
So with all of those virtues, why is “Beautiful Boy” so underwhelming? Amy Ryan and the supporting players are all top-notch, and Van Groeningen’s direction is technically proficient; he uses narrative hyperlinking, via music and moods, to shuttle between moments in their shared past and present, and the editing strategy is keenly aware of how a song can trigger a memory. And he seeks out small moments, human touches that exist outside of the tired addiction flick playbook; there is, for example, a painful scene of Nic attempting to break into the empty family home, presumably to steal things to sell for drug money, and Van Groeningen pulls it waaaaay out, as Nic searches one potential key hiding place and the next, and tries each door. The camera holds, well aware that we all know where this is going.
Yet by working in such a deliberately muted key, the emotional payoffs we’re conditioned to require from a story like this never quite arrive, and Van Groeningen never finds a workable substitute for them. (And it’s so oddly paced, it seems to be ending a good half-hour before it does.) It’s a very earnest movie— so much so that one montage is, no kidding, scored with “Sunrise, Sunset”— and it closes with stats about addiction and inspiring words about seeking help, which comes off rather like a cheap ploy for second-hand applause, and emotional catharsis from a movie that can’t quite land it on its own. [C+/B-]
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