The Pitch: Based on the twin memoirs of Rolling Stone contributor David Scheff and his son Nic, Beautiful Boy charts the relationship between David (Steve Carell) and Nic (Timothée Chalamet) as the latter struggles with his addiction to drugs, most notably methamphetamines. As Nic’s behavior grows ever more unpredictable and dangerous, teetering through cycles of recovery and relapse, David reckons with his own desperate reactions to his son’s deterioration, struggling in futility to help him with the support of his wife Karen (Maura Tierney) and Nic’s mom Vicki (Amy Ryan).
Just Say ‘Ehh’: Beautiful Boy comes courtesy of Amazon Studios, which has happily taken Miramax’s place as the go-to home for weepy American indies featuring solemn guitar music and pleasant, if unremarkable, performances from seasoned character actors and eager young stars. While Beautiful Boy is one of the studio’s better efforts (it’s certainly no Life Itself by any stretch of the imagination), it fits firmly into that realm of arthouse milquetoast-ery, achieving a kind of dull competence that neither offends nor inspires.
Director Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) tells the Scheffs’ story with a delicate touch, flitting back and forth in time to chart a slightly unconventional route through Nic’s addiction and David’s subsequent reactions. However, too little of it amounts to much, giving audiences only scraps to grab onto that aren’t firmly rooted in after-school special territory. David reaches out to Nic, Nic snaps at him and goes off to get high, rinse and repeat. While it’s handsomely presented, Ruben Impens’ tasteful cinematography highlighting the soaring highs and rock bottoms of Nic’s journey with subtly effective framing, it all amounts to a boilerplate addiction story with a bit more polish than usual.
Spring and Autumn: Thankfully, much of said polish comes from the film’s positioning as a showcase for Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, two performers at different points of their careers but both at the top of their game. This isn’t the first time Carell has leaned hard in the direction of prestige fare – he’ll even try again in a matter of weeks with Welcome to Marwen – but he’s long proven himself a master at playing amiable everymen with a dark core of emotional turmoil simmering underneath. David Scheff offers Carell plenty of opportunity to show his remarkable, understated dynamism as a dramatic performer, his concerned father wounded and enraged in equal measure. Most enlightening is Carell’s willingness to lay David’s control-freak aspects bare, as well as the tremendous guilt he feels at potentially opening up Nic’s mind to drugs by bragging about all the hard partying he did in college. His is comparatively the less-showy role (by a hair), but Carell acts as a compelling center for the film’s focus on Nic’s addiction.
As for Chalamet, the Internet’s current boyfriend makes a well-deserved meal out of Nic’s journey, which fits all the award-hungry hallmarks for a young actor as talented as he. More than ever before, there’s a great deal of James Dean in Chalamet’s portrayal of Nic, a rebel without a cause whose addiction seems to stem from an innate resistance to his father’s disapproval, and a rebellion against his life of comparative privilege. The film never delves too deep into his own motivations and wants, except in terms of the repetitive back-and-forth about whether he will ever get fully sober. However, Chalamet miraculously manages to transform that repetition into a grippingly emotional sense of frustration towards the cyclical nature of his addiction. His scenes with Carell are magnificent, the two men constantly dancing around what they need from the other (for David, it’s Nic’s sobriety; for Nic, it’s money and help from David to continue his habit). With Carell aging into the role of seasoned character actor, and Chalamet cementing his status as a star on the rise, Beautiful Boy serves as a wonderful canvas to show what both actors are capable of.
That being said, one unfortunate casualty of the film’s singular focus on its two leads is the disappointing lack of material for its supporting cast – especially Tierney and Ryan, who both occupy the unfortunate role of ‘concerned-looking wife’. Much of their contribution to the film comes from occasional sidelong glances at Nic or David, or bickering phone calls with David across the country. They’re silent supporters of David’s quest to get sober, serving primarily as Madonna figures offering forgiveness from afar, which seems a waste of two incredible performers.
The Verdict: Like a lot of Amazon’s recent efforts, Beautiful Boy works best as an actor’s showcase, especially as another stepping stone in Chalamet’s rise to boyish movie star. Unfortunately, addiction stories like these need to do a bit more work to hit audiences where it hurts, and the story of the Scheffs is treated with an emotional distance that doesn’t quite invite viewers into the depths of their despair. For all of David’s distress as to how little he can do for Nic, and Nic’s own downward slide to rock bottom, its exploration of the dynamics of addiction feels relatively shallow. Carell, Chalamet and their supporting players can only spit-shine a relatively rote addiction story so much; by the time the thrill of their work passes, it’s easy to find oneself waiting for more.