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Film Review: Beautiful Boy

22 January 19 words: Adam Wells

Felix van Groeningen's first English language film, an adaptation of Nic Sheff's book Tweak, is the story of a father helping his son through drug addiction... 

Director: Felix van Groeningen

Starring: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney

Running time: 120 mins

When portraying intimate, real-life stories on screen, particularly about sensitive subjects such as addiction, it is essential to present a compelling narrative or character study to allow the film to be something more than just its moral. Unfortunately, despite two incredibly strong performances from Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell, Beautiful Boy feels like watching a pair of acting showreels – albeit very good ones – edited together to loosely form a story. Directed by Belgian filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen, the film tells the story of Nic Sheff (Chalamet) and his downward spiral into substance abuse and addiction, as well as exploring the way it affects the rest of his family, particularly his father David (Carell).

But first, the good: the film is just about saved by its two outstanding central performances. Chalamet channels a manic energy into a believable, twitchy portrayal of an addict desperate to take control of his life, and Carell captures the despair and hopelessness of the father who feels powerless to help. Both performances are enriched any time they share the screen, with their chemistry forming a believable relationship as a father and son. One moment in a diner stands out a particularly effective, with both actors elevating the daytime soap opera-style script into something far more interesting than it should be.

However, this just makes it all the more disappointing when these scenes are undercut by music choices which are either eye-rollingly on-the-nose or just bizarre, robbing moments of any emotional impact they may have had. This is made particularly frustrating by the fact that the scenes in which no music is played are among the most effective of the entire film, trusting the actors’ uniformly excellent performances to do the emotional heavy lifting, without the score pushing them over into melodrama. The film also shows drug-use in a manner which doesn’t quite feel sanitised, but often feels afraid to push its portrayal of the subject slightly further to the grim reality, content to show characters simply talk about the effects of Nic’s addiction rather than show them. This is a shame, given that the few moments in which drug-use and its effects are shown rather than alluded to are among the film’s most powerful moments.

The film has little interest in exploring other avenues of its characters’ lives, frequently leading to big moments simply not carrying the emotional weight they should do.

While watching Beautiful Boy, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that it wants to be an ‘issue’ film, tackling the weighty subject of addiction. Unfortunately, this feeling seeps into every scene, and a pattern soon emerges of ‘characters argue until one or the other storms out’. Admittedly, this repetition, along with the rising and falling structure of the film, works well to portray the cycle of recovery and relapse experienced by Nic, but the film does not present its morals with anything approaching subtlety, making scenes which should be devastating simply feel tedious. Similarly, the film has little interest in exploring other avenues of its characters’ lives, frequently leading to big moments simply not carrying the emotional weight they should do.

Flashback scenes depicting Nic as a child feel as if they’ve been dropped in randomly, with very little attention as to whether they fit where they’ve been placed in the narrative – a shame, since on the few occasions in which they work, they greatly enhance moments elsewhere in the film. The same can be said of the rare occasions in which the film portrays the effects Nic’s addiction has on the other members of David’s family, with the scenes between Nic and his younger siblings standing out as the high-point of the entire film. Outside of this however, Nic is only broadly characterised by Nirvana posters, beanie hats and the tendency to spout Charles Bukowski in university lectures, creating a level of dissonance between the audience and what should be the hardest-hitting moments of the film.

There is, buried underneath all of Beautiful Boy’s flaws, a moving, honest film about the relationship between a man terrified he’s failed as a father, and his son whose life has spiralled out of control. Unfortunately, that story is all-too-frequently hampered by a fear of following through on its convictions which, combined with the two excellent central performances, ultimately lead to a feeling that the film is something of a missed opportunity.

Did you know? Timothée Chalamet had to lose almost two stone for his role as Nic Sheff. He also had a consultant and doctor on set to ensure his acting as a drug addict was realistic and authentic.

Beautiful Boy is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 31 January

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