Beautiful Boy Review
Though it can be considered rather cruel and dismissive, the term 'Oscar Bait' seems to have become only more and more relevant in recent years. Certain hallmarks - character-driven stories, sweeping statements on societal issues, an overwrought and humourless tone - seem to guarantee Academy attention, to the extent that many undeserving movies manage to sneak their way into the Best Picture category. Sadly for Beautiful Boy, which has all of the previously listed attributes, this dream was not fulfilled - not because it was a terrible film, but because some questionable artistic choices prevented the film from being nearly as profound as it seems to find itself.
Based on the autobiographical book of the same name written by David Sheff about his child Nick, Beautiful Boy explores the strained relationship between a father and son, as the latter is struggling in the throes of a crystal meth addiction. As his potential as a writer and student slowly slips away, the audience is given glimpses at Nick's highest and lowest points, providing a detailed and sympathetic portrait of addiction. Along with many scenes of relapse and rehabilitation, we are shown the subsequent effect on Nick's family, mostly through his father but also from the point of view of his step-mother and siblings, the latter bringing a sense of hope and opportunity to what is undeniably a dour scenario.
By utilizing a semi-alinear plot, the film mostly places its focus on the performances of its lead actors: Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet, each at the best they've ever been. Carell may be known primarily as a comedic actor for his work on The Office as Michael Scott, but as a long time Little Miss Sunshine fan, I was excited to see him take on another role where he can't rely on his penchant for silliness. Reminding me frequently of Michael Stuhlberg's character in the superior Chalamet vehicle Call Me By Your Name, the gentle quality that Carell brings to the role of David makes the tragedy of the situation all the more affecting, and the fact that Carell always seems to emanate a strong sense of paternal care certainly helps. As always, Chalamet is fantastic, able to flip between charming cockiness and pathetic childishness without breaking a sweat, while still remaining likable amongst all the mistakes Nick makes.
If I had to pinpoint the primary issue with the film and how it manages to destroy its fragile poignancy, it would be the mise-en-scene, and frankly, how bloody nice it is all the time. While the Sheff family home's idyllic appearance assists in visually conveying how drug addiction can affect even the most seemingly perfect people, the sheer loveliness of their living situation does end up undercutting the tragedy to a degree. This issue continues with the lack of any obvious transformation of Nick's physicality; not only would some more intense makeup have assisted in understanding the gravity of his addiction, but it would have also felt more honest to how crystal meth actually causes you to look. In preserving Timothee's much-adored face, director Felix Van Groningen overly softens the gritty, unpretty reality that addicts suffer through. Interestingly, the score often has the opposite problem, constantly providing such an unnecessary dump of maudlin self-satisfaction that you find it hard to take the visuals seriously.
But for all the effort Van Groeningen put into this movie in an attempt to generate a strong response from the viewer, I personally found myself feeling very little towards the characters and their situation. At times, I felt as though the film assumed I would care without putting in the groundwork and ensuring that I had enough invested in the Sheffs to want to see them succeed. Carell and Chalamet work overtime to maintain the dramatic tension, and if it wasn't for their stellar performances, I doubt I would have been remotely interested in whether David and Nick would get on like old times once more.
All in all, while Beautiful Boy is certainly a competent attempt at filmmaking with many praiseworthy elements, its desperate need to fit into the current image of Film Prestige does an unfortunate amount of harm, weakening and watering down the intensity while somehow also making a mockery of the more experimental, gutsy moments.