Beautiful Boy’s clinical, almost cold approach may rub some people the wrong way, but the film does an admirable job showing the lack of control a parent would have with addressing their child’s substance abuse issues.
Imagine running into a friend after 20 years and you notice they have aged in a way that is almost accelerated. They have lost a dramatic amount of weight, are always thirsty because they are grinding their teeth, and the teeth may look yellow or even black. They are constantly scratching themselves all over, causing sores to pop up all over their arms and body. Are you picturing it? Now, imagine the person you are talking to is your 17-year-old son, who used to be your Beautiful Boy.
Beautiful Boy is based on the work of award-winning writer David Sheff, a highly respected journalist who decided to write a memoir chronicling his son’s struggle with drug abuse. The Beautiful Boy is his son Nicolas, a teenager who is a developing writer and overall creative kid who has good grades, acts in school plays, participates in school athletics, draws almost sardonically comical pictures, while also being editor of his school newspaper. He was a beautiful child, some might even say pretty. He has big brown eyes, big, bouncy dark curls, a smile that would melt any parent’s heart. So, when David found out Nicolas abused alcohol, used mood stabilizers, then slowly but surely graduated to smoking crystal meth, the perfect life he had envisioned for his son is slipping away and his world is turned upside down.
One of the main criticisms of Beautiful Boy is the almost cold, clinical approach that David Sheff takes with trying to figure out and solve his son’s addiction issues. When you see yourself in your son, it must be hard to think what happened to turn to these types of hard drugs. David turns to the only thing he knows how to do: investigating the problem using his skills as a journalist, after grasping at straws without coming up with easy answers. He consults a psychologist (played by Timothy Hutton) who explains, after showing David brain scans of meth addicts, his boy has only less than a 10% chance of beating this addiction.
Director and co-writer Felix Van Groningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) does an admirable job of showing you the lack of control parents have when dealing with their offspring’s substance abuse issues. While the film specializes in the view from the parent’s sides, it falls short of expectations while truly showing you the physical toll that it takes on Nick. There is no dramatic loss in weight from the hunger or being depressed from the disease. Nicolas doesn’t have any sores on his body from scratching, usually from developing tingling sensations beneath the skin from their meth use. Nicolas’s teeth should be yellow or blackened, from the lack of saliva produced from a result of the addiction. None of these physical signs are present during the film. An argument can be made that this may be a result of this happening through David’s eyes, a memory play if you will, as he wants to think about that time with his son without any imperfections other than emotional. It’s more of a missed opportunity that is more insincere than anything.
The film’s script can be frustrating, as there are also scenes within the film that don’t ring true, while others can be refreshingly honest. For instance, when Nicolas asks his father for money at a local restaurant they often frequented through his childhood, an emotional argument ensues. David and Nicolas are not aware of their surroundings; David doedoes not speak in a low, hushed voice so others won’t hear. For a parent who is so worried about the aesthetics of having a son who is a drug addict, he doesn’t seem to mind yelling about it in a public place, nor do the other customers or employees at the restaurant care that the outburst had occurred. On the other hand, it is enlightening to have a film address the financial costs of treating addiction, as when David tries to find the best care for his son, a facility in New Mexico charges over $45,000 a month for their services, and immediately acknowledges he can’t afford it.
When it comes down to it, there are some wonderful performances within the film’s structure. Beautiful Boy allows Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet to feature their immense talents by painting a picture of a parent trying to understand what his son is going through, and the lack of control each has going on in their lives. Maura Tierney has been a solid actress in television and films for years, and she is particularly moving here as a step-mother who tries to protect her family from a son she did not bare. The real show stopper though might be veteran actress Lisa Gay Hamilton (The Practice), who in only handful of seconds practically steals the film from the leads, when in a support group for parents of children with addiction, she tells the story of the grief she still carries for the loss of her child a year later.
Beautiful Boy’s clinical, almost cold approach may rub some people the wrong way, but the film does an admirable job showing the lack of control a parent would have with addressing their child’s substance abuse issues. The film is truly an actor showcase, with strong performances from the leads and a scene-stealing Lisa Gay Hamilton. Groningen’s film, though, falls short of expectations, as its more worried about the aesthetics, and could be more grounded in its approach to the physical toll of drug abuse.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.