Having a certain amount of buzz going into TIFF can be as much a curse as it is a blessing. And it’s reasonable to say that there were expectations about the quality of Beautiful Boy from the moment that the first tearjerking trailer dropped. But is Beautiful Boy actually able to live up to the hype? Well…sort of.
The story of Beautiful Boy is based on a pair of memoirs written by a father and son, each detailing their perspective of the son’s drug addiction. It goes through the highs and lows of addiction, all the false starts and relapses that make it such a heartbreaking experience to go through, both as the person actually dealing with addiction and as the family members who are trying desperately to help but don’t know where to begin.
Timothee Chalamet puts in an excellent performance — he brings a sense of fragility that serves him especially well in this role. There are a handful of actors out there who are somehow devastating beautiful to watch cry, and he happens to be one of them. His performance is undeniably one of the highlights of the film, and what saves it when some of its weaknesses become difficult to overlook. Steve Carell is also solid as the father who wants to save his son but eventually has to learn that you can’t save someone who isn’t ready to be saved, although he does get a little screamy and one note at certain points of the film.
Beautiful Boy is a good film, but it falls disappointingly short of greatness in several areas. It frequently seems as though it is struggling to decide whether it wants to be a story about a teenage drug addict or a father dealing with the drug addiction of his son.
The movie ends up splitting the difference and both narratives suffer, frequently switching perspectives at odd moments and having one of the lead actors frustratingly disappear when it feels like we should be seeing more of their side of the story. The fact that this is based on two separate memoirs explains some of the narrative confusion.
It also somehow feels very sanitized at points. Although the film takes us through many of his experiences with overdoses and other elements of drug addition, it stops short when it really should push into more explicit territory and we are frequently spared from seeing the horrors of real addiction. It is certainly not glorified by any means, but Timothee Chalamet’s performance makes addiction seem beautifully tragic rather than ugly and messy and destructive. It’s a flaw that robs the film of some of its emotional efficacy.
That is not to say that Beautiful Boy doesn’t have its fair share of emotionally honest and powerful moments, though. A definite highlight is Maura Tierney in an somewhat thankless role as David’s second wife Karen driving her soccer mom van into a high speed chase to catch Nic, and subsequent breakdown on the side of the road.
If there had been more small, understated moments like this, I think Beautiful Boy might have lived up to its potential. As it stands, the film is a poignant, well-acted, but fairly bloodless tale of drug addiction, one that has a wealth of material to pull from with two memoirs but perhaps not enough narrative focus to craft one single coherent film.