“Beautiful Boy,” a story based on the memoirs of a meth addict and his father, stars rising newcomer Timothee Chalamet as Nic Sheff and seasoned actor Steve Carell as David Sheff. Although it boasts a star-studded cast (among them a Golden Globe winner and Academy Award nominee), “Beautiful Boy” falls brutally short. While the exhilarating soundtrack, powerful performances and striking cinematography make it an aesthetically pleasing watch, the writing is caught between trying to be both relatable and nuanced. What results feels neither moving nor universal; rather, the viewer leaves with a rather lackluster impression.
The movie begins on a bleak note: David Sheff is seeking medical advice for his son, Nic, whom he explains is addicted to multiple drugs. Rather than showing Nic’s first encounter with narcotics, or the gradual process from gateway drugs to crystal meth, characters just inform the audience of the situation. While this could be to cut down on the running time (the film is two hours long), it comes off as lazy storytelling. The audience doesn’t get to form a connection with Nic because we are outsiders to his struggle from the beginning. That said, Carell works with the role he has and does a terrific job at portraying the worried father. His performance, coupled with the soundtrack, add a layer of anticipation and panic as he searches for Nic during one of his many disappearances.
The camera shots are remarkable; each one is new and manages to either include or exclude the audience from the predicament. When David finally finds Nic after a couple of days of fruitless searching, he helps him out of the rain into his small car. The camera alternates from a shot inside the car to outside, where David has his arm around Nic in support. The viewer shares David’s pain at finding his afflicted son, a feeling that becomes even stronger when the camera shot shifts back to the inside of the car, where Nic becomes suddenly sick. Scenes like these are painful to watch, as the actors and the cameramen work in tandem to make the viewer feel as if the trauma is directly in front of them.
Chalamet’s sweet disposition and charisma are a delight to watch in the scenes where they are allowed to shine through (before things decline further, he shares a tender moment with Carell’s character) but most of the film dehumanizes Nic into a poster boy for addiction. This is one aspect where “Beautiful Boy” truly excels — it portrays the devastating effects of drug addiction and how negatively it can affect the lives of an addict’s loved ones. But Nic’s relapses become repetitive and emotionally draining to watch, and his recoveries start to feel insincere after the first couple of times. The film’s indecision to either appeal to a bigger audience or to stay true to the complexity of its characters fall in a middle lane: its attempt at universality renders it unrelatable, and its characters are reduced to two-dimensional shadows of its real counterparts. Although the audience is told (another instance of shoddy storytelling) that Nic has a bright future ahead of him, there’s no way to know — in the film, he is little more than a struggling addict. Despite this hindrance, Chalamet delivers an emotional performance that could range from gut-wrenchingly sad to hopelessly lost. The soundtrack works with his unpredictable moods, freezing when Nic is dormant and exploding whenever he does. Nevertheless, his character lacks depth. The film’s non-linear timeline (which skips around periodically from the present to Nic’s childhood and early teen years) could have served as an evocative reminder of who Nic was before he turned to narcotics. But it doesn’t further the storyline or develop the characters in any way. It just highlights the close bond that Nic and David share — something that could have been accomplished through Chalamet and Carell’s performances alone.
Verdict: Although complete with A-List actors, moving performances and excellent camerawork, “Beautiful Boy” can’t conjure the level of emotion it promised. The writing is ineffectual despite Chalamet and Carell’s impressive attempts to tugg at viewers’ heart-strings. Nic and David’s story is inspiring in its own right, but its touching quality is not adapted well onto the big screen.