LFF 2018: Beautiful Boy

Father and son battle addiction and recovery

Timothée Chalamet has managed to become a fawned over teen idol, beloved by armies of screaming teenage girls (and guys), despite not having a starring role in a film with mainstream crossover appeal. His ascendant star is, rather bizarrely, entirely attributed to a European LGBT arthouse movie – and as beloved as Call Me By Your Name is, the intense fandom surrounding it continues to be somewhat baffling. In some ways, it’s not surprising that teenagers are obsessed with him, what with his non-threatening, boyband adjacent looks. The big surprise is that he’s become widely obsessed over without starring in anything mainstream enough to make him a household name.

I wouldn’t normally be superficial enough to reference the physical attributes of any actors, let alone in the opening paragraph, but in the case of Beautiful Boy, this proves to be somewhat crucial. Chalamet isn’t afraid to take on a diverse roster of roles, with his two turns in Best Picture nominees last year straddling polar opposite sides of the empathy divide. And here, he rises to the challenge of playing a character suffering from a crystal meth addiction with the gravitas we’ve quickly come to expect from him.

Beautiful Boy

The only problem is that director Felix Van Groeningen (in his English language debut) is reluctant to rise up to the challenge set by his young star’s performance and convey the affects of excessive meth use on the character – no make up or prosthetic effects are applied to Chalamet, with the director leaving his looks intact despite wanting us to believe drug addiction is taking its toll. If anything, it’s a stealth advert in favour of drug addiction; Chalamet’s good looks remain unchanged despite the substance abuse, a baffling decision that undercuts the seriousness of the treatise on the harsh realities of long term meth use. While watching, you get the feeling of producers breathing down the director’s neck asking for him to soften his portrayal of the character’s downfall, so teenagers will still flock to see their beloved actor even if he is starring in a depressing addiction drama.

Adapted from two separate memoirs by the two characters at the centre, Beautiful Boy channels the efforts of David Sheff (Steve Carrell) to look after his son Nic (Chalamet) as he struggles with addiction. We are initially introduced to him driving his son to rehab – but every time Nic gets clean, he drastically relapses, threatening his family relationships and disappearing for long stretches of time. In non-linear fashion, we follow the ups and downs of this fraught father-son relationship over the years.

Although the film’s structure is accurate to the circular spirals of addiction, where years of recovery can be jettisoned in a single moment, it doesn’t make for the most dramatically engaging work. Despite amiable performances from both Chalamet and Carrell, the film is hard to connect with due to its dull, repetitive structure. This may be faithful to the harrowing true story and the nature of addiction itself, but as a piece of drama, it’s hard to sustain interest as we keep reliving the same recovery and downfall a number of times, with no change in the manner in which it’s depicted. Maybe with a more dynamic, less pedestrian, director behind the camera, the harmful cycle of addiction wouldn’t feel like a tedious narrative construct. The project was originally going to be directed by Cameron Crowe before Groeningen signed on, yet I can’t help but feel a more passionate, melodramatic director like Xavier Dolan would have been a better fit for the intended raw emotion of the material.

Beautiful Boy is at its best in the small moments, conveying the minutiae of a family life where the happy moments need to be cherished because of the agony elsewhere. Nic visiting his father and young siblings after a long term recovery, chasing them through the gardens and jumping through the water sprinkler, is a more memorable, affecting image than the broad strokes addiction drama we are mostly greeted with. It feels authentic, shorn of the addiction clichés elsewhere.

Alistair Ryder

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

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