Felix van Groeningen / USA / 2018 / 120 mins
At the Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 8 Feb 2019
Addiction is a tricky old habit to kick to the curb, regardless of the societal privileges you enjoy or the familial support framework propping you up. That’s the message of Beautiful Boy, the English-language debut of director Felix van Groeningen adapted from two real-life memoirs. One was penned by Nic Sheff, the titular son who almost saw his short life snuffed out by crystal meth, while the other by his caring father David who just can’t quite figure out how to fix this broken thing.
It’s a difficult watch pretty much from start to finish, with Steve Carell‘s David outlining the stark reality of his son’s situation in the opening scene and Timothée Chalamet embodying Nic’s inner struggles with visceral believability throughout. It’s an incredible performance that’s encapsulated in a single scene where Chalamet slips from ingratiating schmaltz to grovelling entreaty to wild-eyed aggression to crestfallen resignation with remarkable ease. Surpassing the range and depth of his Oscar-nominated performance in 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, it’s a complete mystery as to why he has been neglected this time around.
Steve Carell could easily have been dwarfed by such an emotive performance, and while he’s unspectacular by comparison, he’s steady and credible as a father watching his son self-destruct and powerless to intervene. The women in the script are very much relegated to second fiddles, but this is a story about the father-son relationship and as such their bit-parts are understandable, if a little thinly-sketched. More problematic is the film’s tendency to flit backwards and forwards in time, which is obviously used to try and give some context for Nic’s predicament and contrast his current plight with happier days, but becomes a little wearisome due to its repetition.
We’re also reminded on several occasions that relapse is a part of recovery, becoming something of a mantra for the movie. While it certainly strikes at the heart of the feelings of futility and helplessness that addiction incurs, it does mean the story arc is telegraphed well in advance, making its two-hour duration slightly overlong by the final curtain. That’s exacerbated by the oppressive nature of the narrative, and although there are a few chinks of humour to lighten up its gloom, they’re as fleeting and unsubstantial as the endorphins which accompany a solid bout of hungover vomiting.
As such, the film does a quality job of conveying the nightmarish qualities of its subject matter and its actors bring pathos to their roles, making it a harrowing but heartfelt portrayal of addiction. Chords will surely be struck more soundly with anyone whose life has been touched by such a blight, but it’s a well-crafted window into an opaque and desperately frustrating issue for anyone.