More people in the United States under the age of 50 die from drug addictions annually than die by guns or car crashes. In fact, more people die from addiction than those two things combined. Far more people are struggling, either publicly or in private, and there is no solution in sight. Crystal meth is not the leading drug for addicts, but its impact on the lives of users and those who love them can be particularly devastating. The likelihood of kicking such an addiction is less than 10%, and in Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy audiences get to see what the fight to realities of fighting for recovery is like first hand.
Based on the best-selling pair of memoirs from father and son David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy details the struggle of a family doing everything they can to save their beloved oldest son from a life of addiction. The film stars Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet as the father-son duo. Neither actor has worked with this kind of material in the past, and it puts each of them to the test in unique ways. Carell struggles to understand where things went wrong while focusing on how he can help in the present, while Chalamet must traverse the complicated mindset of someone who knows they’re doing wrong but is unable to change their ways.
Beautiful Boy does its best to cover as much ground as possible within two-hours. Exact dates are never presented, but the film covers many years, chronicling the time immediately following Nic Sheff’s high school graduation until he’s deep within his twenties. His addiction is present throughout, though the narrative spends almost no time whatsoever dealing with the origin of his problem. That detail may be frustrating for some, but that is the point. As audiences witness David Sheff replaying memories with his son over and over in his mind as Nic’s addiction worsens, viewers are made to feel the pain that any parent must endure when they’re unsure if, when, or how they could have done things differently. Nic was a good kid by all accounts, wildly creative and liked by all, but none of that mattered after he started using crystal meth. It never does.
The story bounces from David to Nic and back again, but it mainly focuses on David’s numerous attempts to help his son, as well as the difficult lessons he learns along the way. He visits doctors who offer insight to the effects of crystal meth, speaks with other addicts, and even dabbles in recreational drug use. He learns everything possible, but nothing gets him any closer to his goal of saving his son. Nic, meanwhile, only details his pain through art and notebooks. It’s clear the high is not always worth what follows, but Beautiful Boy stops short of getting into the gritty detail of addiction. We don’t see the withdrawals, or at least not enough to help us understand the lows that Nic must be experiencing. Instead, what we receive is a surface level look at a deeply complicated battle that challenges — and often changes — everything the user knows about themselves.
Shortcomings of the narrative aside, Beautiful Boy does offer a bevy of remarkable performances. Carell and Chalamet will no doubt be contending for awards as the leads, which is wholly earned and deserved, but Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney deliver equally great work as well. Both women are given the difficult task of being there for both men while simultaneously overcoming their own struggles. Ryan’s character hasn’t been present for the majority of her son’s life, while Tierney’s Karen has two young children with David that need her as much as David or Nic. Their journeys occur primarily in the background, but when given a moment to convey the weight of everything they each rise to the occasion in their own unforgettable way.
The downfall of Beautiful Boy, if there is one, is that the story seems afraid of being too real for general audiences. The most difficult moments, but it David’s realization of what is out of his control or Nic’s attempts to rationalize his behavior, take place off camera. The decision to keep the bleakest points of each character’s journey away from viewers limits the impact of the story in a way that sometimes threatens to derails the entire film. It’s as though Groeningen’s goal was to make us feel something powerful, just not everything he knew such material could elicit. The only question is, why?