Based on the memoirs of a father and son, Beautiful Boy focuses on the relationship between retired journalist David and 18-year-old Nic as he battles an addiction to crystal meth. The film skips between the past and the present in a sometimes frustrating manner, but once you can look past that, you’re in.
You feel David’s pain as he searches for answers, realising that he doesn’t know who his son has become. “There are moments that I look at him,” he says at one stage, “this kid that I raised, who I thought I knew inside and out, and I wonder who he is”. You also feel Nic’s frustration at his dad’s well-meaning attempts to help, that end up pushing him further away. He is all at sea and the only person that can really help him is himself. David can’t comprehend why his son would have ever wanted to take drugs, but as Nic sees it, they take “the edge off stupid everyday reality”. The film offers no explanations as to why or how addiction happens- Nic’s childhood is presented as idyllic, save the separation of his parents- it merely charts the tight grip of addiction and how hard it is to overcome.
There are excellent performances from the cast; Steve Carrel’s David is likeable and determined, if not a little too ‘perfect’ in his quest to help his son. Timothée Chalamet’s Nic is genuinely endearing, despite veering from earnest to vulnerable to volatile. Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney are both criminally underused and are often pushed to the side, starring as Nic’s mother and stepmother respectively.
Despite going into this film knowing a fair amount about the real-life story it’s based on, the harrowing nature of addiction and its portrayal on screen was still shocking. Nic’s experiences are never sugar-coated and you see him relapse over and over, pushing away his family until it becomes a never-ending loop of despair and regret. Every emotion is played out so vividly that you feel David’s frustration as if it were your own. The soundtrack is effective, if at times overwhelming, with the music swelling up at pivotal moments. In one touching scene David starts singing John Lennon’s ‘Beautiful Boy’ (roll credits!) to a young Nic, which eventually melds into the actual track. On the other hand, during a particularly intense part of the film, subtitles for hearing impaired filmgoers kept flashing up on the screen with such gems as ‘operatic singing in Polish continues!’. This, along with the extremely loud vocals, ended up overshadowing the actual scene, adding unintended comic effect. My friend and I tried unsuccessfully not to laugh.
For a drama about addiction, it’s a remarkably sanitised piece of cinema. The family home could be on Grand Designs, light and open with high ceilings and gleaming mosaic countertops (a quick Google search reveals that it was used in the TV show Big Little Lies and is valued at over 2.6 million). Despite being retired, David can fly from California to Los Angeles at a moment’s notice to help his son, money no object. Unlike most addicts, Nic doesn’t struggle to get funds to buy drugs. Instead, he simply steals from his young stepsiblings or gets money from his family. Even when he injects himself with meth, nine times out of ten he’s in a plush house or a university dorm room. When David takes meth himself, trying to see what pulled Nic in, we are not shown the consequences. Did David get what he wanted out of it? What, if anything, did he learn? We are left to wonder.
Despite any minor shortcomings, the film is kept afloat by Chalamet and Carrel’s heartfelt performances and the beautiful cinematography. Amidst the turmoil, the camera lingers on the quieter moments; sunlight streaming through the trees, children playing in the garden. The closing shot shows David holding Nic, perhaps realising that he can’t protect his son against his addiction. Ultimately, that is the message that stays with us when the film ends. We may not be able to battle someone else’s demons, but we can hold their hand while they do.