Directed by Felix Van Groeningen. Starring Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, and Maura Tierney.
It’s not always easy, falling into an obsession with a piece of writing, whether fictional or fantasy, to then see that work adapted to screen. Your opinions are emotionally blurred, and your perceptions of characters, scenes, and places feel fragile. You worry if it will be done justice, and if it will it ever live up.
On the heels of a heart-shattering performance in Luca Guadagnino’s Call My Be Your Name, Timothée Chalamet returned to my attention with the trailer for Beautiful Boy. Father and son meet in a small-town cafe, obvious desperation in the father’s tone. There is an immediate realisation that this character is walking on egg-shells within a precious moment - a testament to Steve Carrells acting pedigree, giving us so much within just a few words. In response, the son, an initial bundle of warmth and laughter, erupts into an emotional frenzy. “I didn’t want it to go like this”, he mumbles behind shaking hands, staring out of the window. Within minutes, we as an audience are introduced to a complex father-son relationship, one that has been stretched, twisted and bent to breaking point by the relentless and unforgiving power of drug addiction. Instantly, I was hooked.
I fell in-love with the gorgeous film-making and performances in Call Me By Your Name. Yearning for more, I purchased the original novel by André Aciman and was incredibly moved by it, adding so much depth to both the characters and settings I’d found myself so captivated by on screen. In anticipation for this new feature, I did the same. I began reading Beautiful Boy a few weeks before the film was to hit cinemas. The harrowing memoir from father David Sheff is immediately emotional and personal. The aching roller-coaster ride you join him on, of ups and downs and recoveries and relapses, is so moving, facilitated by a backlog of questions, self-reflections, memories, songs, experiences - a rich insight into the complex and extremely close relationship between father and son. I broke down reading the epilogue, finally at the close of this journey, one that knowingly for the narrator, may never really end.
So, as I walked into the cinema last night, I asked myself; could it possibly live up? How will they structure the story? Or present that scene? Simultaneously, I tried to clear my mind of pre-disposed judgement and expectation - a truly difficult task with adaptations, when you have felt so immensely connected to the source material.
The film begins with Carell’s David Sheff, clearly emotionally worn, and in the midst of a battle he is losing, asking a hidden figure for advice on his sons addiction. “My two big questions are, what is it doing to him and what can I do to help him?” The first third of the feature sets an interesting pace for the movie. We’re taken back a year from the opening scene, and provided with a collection of tangled moments that offer glimpses into the fairly happy childhood of Nic Sheff, compared to where he is currently; frail, aggressive, and falling into serious addiction. As a reader first, I found this take on structure to be initially very frustrating. The written story is told, for the most part, chronologically, almost as if David is talking to a therapist, starting at the very beginning. Understandably, it would have always been difficult to structure the film this way, and potentially not quite as compelling for audiences. The chosen approach from director Felix Van Groeningen is a clever one, almost emulating the devastatingly turbulent ups and downs of drug addiction. The delivery however, falls short. The slight lack of clarity within this choppy timeline makes it very difficult at times to understand where and when things began to change and why. In one scene, we’re shown David and Nic laughing, sharing a joint to celebrate his acceptance into some of the best colleges going. Shortly after, we enter a scene showing Nic’s second entry into a rehabilitation centre where, in his new bedroom, Nic explains that in a couple of years he’d fallen into regular use of marijuana, alcohol, ecstasy, cocaine, LSD, and finally, crystal meth for the last couple of months. Struggling, his father asks why, to which he responds, “When I tried it I felt better than I ever had, so I just kept on doing it.”
This scene is brilliant. The intimacy between David, Nic and his step-mother, Karen, is truly authentic. You can see that they are a real family unit, and that despite the trauma of the last few years, they are still incredibly close, and care deeply for each other. Carell’s fragile emotional dial is always fringing on ten, while Chalamet’s nervous, tearful and clearly regretful outpour is shattering. This is one of many scenes in which Beautiful Boy really triumphs. Not just because they are so truthful to the original story, but because it is in them that we’re offered the clearest bridge into who this family were and are, and importantly, the kind of person Nic is when he is sober. However, within the film I felt it was difficult to gauge how far apart this moment was with that of the father and son smoking together. As a film viewer, you are at times left feeling as though you are trying to put the pieces together yourself.
After entering the second phase of the feature, it generates a far better pace, supported by some tremendous performances, and this continues until its close. Ultimately, I felt torn by the end of the film. It is undoubtedly let down by its early structure and disjointed narrative, but its whirlwind performances and in-depth character studies pull it through. Chalamet so successfully transitions from an achingly vulnerable, powerless victim to a character riddled with frustration and desperation, wide-eyed, haunting and full of verve - a nod to his growing fan-base and proof that he is the real deal. Meanwhile, Carell offers an entirely different power. An ability to demonstrate complete loss, fear, anguish and desperation through expression and tone, at all times. Where Van Groeningen’s direction and narrative structure misses the mark, the praise-worthy performances from the two leads, as well as the supporting cast, attempt to fill in the gaps. Van Groeningen’s adaptation seems to focus much more on the real-time effects of addiction, rather than its causes. For me, both are equally as important in this story. This choice sees the film refuse to engage in some of the most interesting aspects of David’s memoirs, and Nic’s battle with his addiction, aspects which I felt needed to be shown on screen.
Overall, I really did enjoy the film as an accompaniment to the memoirs, along with its truly compelling performances, however, as a stand-alone film, I feel it was drawn short through its inability to share the incredibly personal in-betweens of Nic’s addiction, integral for really understanding the roots of his addiction and relationships.