Just out of high school in Marin County, California, and free to attend any of the six colleges that have accepted him, Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) is handsome, whip-smart and completely addicted to drugs, chiefly crystal meth. “It takes the edge off stupid, all-day reality,” he explains to his father David (Steve Carell, superb), a journalist whose love for Nic and desire to be his best pal have blinded him to the truth of his son’s life. The imperfect yet affecting new film Beautiful Boy, based on the memoirs by the real-life Nic and David, examines addiction and its effects on one family. But it’s also a meditation on memory and the difficulty of reconciling the happiness of the past with a present that’s become too sad to bear.
Once he realizes how deep a hold meth has on Nic, David springs into action, finding a rehab hospital and cajoling Nic to go. On the drive, Belgian writer-director Felix Van Groeningen (The Misfortunates, The Broken Circle Breakdown, both Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees) and his longtime editor Nico Leunen, juxtapose the worn Nic slumped in the passenger seat with memories flashing across David’s mind of an earlier car trip, when Nic bobbed his head in time to a Nirvana jam on the radio, much to his father’s delight.
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That idealized Nic, so happy (seemingly) and full of promise, will be the one mourned in the days and years ahead by David, his ex-wife (and Nic’s mother) Vicki (Amy Ryan) and his current wife Karen (Maura Tierney), and even their two young children. For Nic and his family, rehab becomes sobriety becomes relapse, a pitiless cycle of hope and disappointment too many of us will experience at one time or another, either as addict or loved one.
Through it all, Van Groeningen and co-screenwriter Luke Davies (Lion), meld time, placing David and Nic’s past alongside their present. It passes by in a series of montages set to popular music, including a stark rendition of “Sunrise, Sunset” by Perry Como that proves a perfect match to images of a father and son lost in the lonely ache of separation. This time-compressing storytelling motif inventively breaks up the repetition of rehab and release. But by the time the director cues up Henryk Górecki’s magnificently mournful “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” for Nic’s final descent into hell, weary viewers may feel emotionally distant from him at the very moment he needs our empathy most.
On his own in San Francisco, Nic does despicable things, including turning his girlfriend on to drugs and robbing his family home, but these events have a TV movie predictability. One doesn’t have to have read his memoir to know that an addict as far gone as Nic faced Requiem for a Dream-esque moments of self-degradation, but the folks behind Beautiful Boy are too polite to show us this.
If those scenes aren’t onscreen, the painful memory of them can be seen in Chalamet’s haunted eyes. As actors, he and Carell share a palpably deep connection, so much so that even when Nic is at his darkest, loneliest moment, we can somehow sense David’s presence within him. Here is a son holding tight to the love his father earned the hard way — by being there.