Beautiful Boy (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
It is not often that I encounter a dramatic film in which I find myself—multiple times—having to pull my eyes away from the screen because what’s going on is so realistic, looking at the images feels like a breach of privacy. “Beautiful Boy” is based on the memoirs “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” and “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines” by David and Nic Sheff, respectively, and the works are adapted to the screen by searing honesty by Luke Davies and Felix Van Goreningen. It is not interested in using large brushes to paint a portrait of drug addiction. Instead, it is specific to Nic’s story and his family’s numerous attempts to help him.
It shows how so many movies about drug addiction tend to utilize clichés to amplify the drama. In order to avoid common trappings, observe how it employs time. For instance, within a span of twenty minutes, several weeks or months can pass. Flashbacks are introduced in a non-linear fashion. An unexpected dramatic parabola is created and so our expectations are shuffled like a deck of cards. Sometimes these expectations do not materialize at all. And yet, intriguingly, we still have a full appreciation of the subjects’ struggles.
This can be attributed partly to the film’s strong central performances. Steve Carrell plays the father and Timothée Chalamet plays the son. Their interactions command great tension, particularly during moments when David feels he must confront Nic about his disease. Each confrontation is different. At times it is approached from the perspective of anger. Sometimes confusion. Other times of great frustration. The father wishes to understand his son’s affliction, but he fails to see that his son doesn’t understand it either. Yet despite the whirlwind of rehab centers, sleepless nights, Nic going missing for days, and receiving calls from various professionals, there is always love there. Sometimes love isn’t always in the form of being there or giving. Sometimes love comes in the form of restraint.
Carrell and Chalamet appears to feed off one another’s energy. And so when the father looks at his son and asks whether he is on drugs, the question is not really a question. A parent always knows deep down. And so I wished Maura Tierney, who plays Nic’s stepmother, were given more to do. Tierney is wonderful when she must act in the background. Great performers can say a lot without saying a word. Standing from a few feet away with a concerned body posture tells us plenty. While it is appropriate that the camera focuses on father and son, I found my curiosity inching toward her character sometimes. David has two young children with Karen. It is apparent that Nic’s sudden disappearances impacts them, too. They ask about him. They miss him. They know he is on drugs.
I loved that the material manages to set aside some time to present facts not normally shown in movies involving drug addiction. For example, we see brain scans and hear what methamphetamines does to the brain, particularly in the amygdala. There is talk about receptors being destroyed following consistent meth usage. Given enough time, these receptors might recover. These are seemingly small but important details—mundane to some. They are often found, for instance, in science books or niche documentaries, not dramatic films. I enjoyed that it assumes viewers will be interested in details rather than repelled by scientific or medical jargon. It treats viewers as curious and intelligent. It may even inspire them to do more research about the topic. To further understand drug addiction, one must have an appreciation of biological events.