by George Wolf
Those of a certain age hear the title Beautiful Boy and most likely think of the John Lennon song, a sweetly poignant ode from father to son. It’s used to touching effect in the film that shares that title, an utterly heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful adaption of separate memoirs by David and Nicolas Sheff.
David was the proud father, a successful writer who dreamed of great things for his bright, ambitious son. Instead, Nic became an alcoholic and drug addict who offered his family countless promises of recovery that always fell empty.
Two masterful performances drive this film to its emotional heights, keeping it steady the few times it teeters on slopes of undue manipulation.
Steve Carell makes David an instantly relatable mix of unconditional love and crestfallen confusion. As Nic’s addiction batters David’s homelife with his wife (Maura Tierney) and two young children, flashbacks to sweet memories with a younger Nic outline the bond between father and son that only grew after David’s split with Nic’s mother (Amy Ryan – also stellar). Carell makes it feel real with a thoughtful, often understated turn full of quiet detail.
And people, if last year didn’t hip you to the immense talent of Timothee Chalamet, he’s back to seal the deal with a performance certain to be hailed come Oscar time.
Just when you’re comfortable with the authenticity of Nic’s slide into addiction, Chalamet digs deeper to find the shattering center of a soul at war with dependence and desperation. Though his baby-faced smile stays miles away from meth addict ugliness, Chalamet finds a raw humanity that makes Nic a walking wound, and makes us feel part of the frayed parental bonds. His scenes with Carrell – where Nic tries taking advantage of his father’s love only to turn on him moments later – find two actors in complete sync, revealing a crushing humanity that hits you hard. Bring tissues.
There are two important stories here, and they only falter when it feels some intimacy from each has been shortchanged to make room for the other. Director Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown), collaborating on the screenplay with Luke Davies (Lion), merges the dual memoirs for a series of episodes that resonate best when given room to breath, free of any heavy-handed reminders about how quickly children grow up.
Beautiful Boy illustrates a vital, shattering cycle of addiction, rehab and relapse, often beautifully. Through first-hand insight and two towering performances, it finds a thread of hope in the ashes of a family’s nightmare.