Starring: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Amy Ryan, Maura Tierney
Directed by: Felix Groeningen
Running Time: 2 Hours
Felix Van Groeningen spins a pair of true life father and son memoirs about the latter’s struggle with drug addiction into two really touching turns from both Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet in Beautiful Boy. The film opens in limited release today and despite some heavy-handed technical choices, succeeds on the authenticity of Carell and Chalamet’s performances.
Steve Carell is instantly sympathetic as David Sheff, who we meet in the midst of his son Nic being missing for a few days—a not unusual occurrence as it turns out. I was relieved when early on his wife (Maura Tierney, bringing a lot to a smaller role) gave him a hug because you can just read on his face such a high level of fragility. He’s worn down by Nic’s habits and tired but also terrified and barely holding it together, he needs that hug! Meanwhile Chalamet suppresses any temptation to overact Nic’s drug addled tics. Instead he keeps all the manic energy behind his eyes and in his slightly unbalanced physicality. Some of the strongest scenes come when Nic is desperately trying to deny that he’s relapsed to get money from an unbelieving David. The film’s greatest strength is resisting the temptation to come down hard on either side of this struggle. “Relapse is part of recovery” becomes David’s mantra when Nic disappoints but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong when he needs to refuse Nic for his own sake. At these moments Carell is almost painfully affecting (frankly, I wanted to hug him too) and I felt my heart racing at times when he, understandably, has to snap and really argue with Chalamet.
There are number of choices Van Groeningen makes however that jar you right out of the story in drastic ways. The music over the opening of the film when we’re introduced to Dave and young Nic’s relationship is so overwrought I felt as though we’d dove right into the climax instead of the titles. These heavy-handed musical interludes occur over and over either in instrumental or lyrical form but I only felt emotionally touched—because how can you not be?—by the titular John Lennon tune which Carrell sweetly sings to young Nic as he tucks him in.
And while I’m discussing Young Nic, besides Chalamet—who, at most is meant to play Nic in his twenties—not just one, but three other boys are deployed to play a younger Nic in flashbacks. It’s distracting not only for the quantity of actors but because the first young Nic is none other than It‘s Jack Dylan Glazer. Glazer himself is fast becoming as recognizable A Name as Chalamet, so when he also gets replaced by still younger models it starts not to feel like the same character. More like props for David. The film is a vital story for a time when America is seeing an epidemic of young people overdosing but in these odd choices, the film gets in the way of itself. When it backs off and let’s the actors take control, A Beautiful Boy shines.