BEAUTIFUL BOY (Movie Review)

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*** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language, drug content throughout, and brief sexual material)
Released: October 26, 2018 limited; November 9 expands
Runtime: 120 minutes
Directed by: Felix van Groeningen
Starring: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Kaitlyn Dever, Christian Convery, Oakley Bull

When an actors’ showcase collides with a filmmaker’s indulgences, something’s got to give. Thankfully in Beautiful Boy the actors win out, but they do so in spite of a director who is seemingly hell-bent on getting in their way at nearly every turn.

Based on two separate memoirs by father and son David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy is a 1990s-set true story about a young man’s long battle with drug addiction. Favoring the father’s point of view, this adaptation provides a heartbreaking perspective on a brutal family saga, one all too familiar for far too many.

The two leads deliver with overwhelming power, and their requisite Oscar buzz is absolutely earned.

It’s no surprise to see Call Me By Your Name breakout Timothée Chalamet give a shattering tour de force as the meth-obsessed son who can’t break the vicious cycle. His range is vast – from pain to shame to anger and even joy – and laced with devastating gut punches at the most crucial moments, evoking a young Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People well before Hutton actually appears in a cameo role.

It’s Steve Carell who’s the revelation. Despite having an Academy Award nomination to his CV, Carell has often strained (if admirably) in his more serious turns. His characters and emotions have been well-observed but calculated, with hints of a comic persona that’s hard to quash. Here, for the first time, Carell is spontaneous and raw. Instinctive, reactive, not self-conscious. The weight and desperation he carries is palpable. He’s not acting spent or exasperated, he is.

These two actors don’t need any more assistance than a camera that can keep them in frame and in focus, yet acclaimed Belgian director Felix van Groeningen burdens them (and the drama) with needless excesses. He has everything he needs in his cast (including Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan, who truly elevate the typically marginalized supporting spousal roles), yet he tries too hard.

For as authentic as his leads are, von Groeningen’s tone is often forced, and false, like a garish third party intruding where it’s not needed, or wanted. The biggest baggage is the obtrusive soundtrack, packed with marketing-curated songs and an emotive indie rock score that strives for hipster poignancy. Instead, it turns moments into This Is Us pap.

The script is hobbled, too, especially out of the gate; the first act is bogged down in overwrought exposition and on-the-nose metaphors (both visual and verbal), as if the whole film is going to be a feature-length reel of this family’s most harrowing moments, conventionally rendered.

As it shifts into its second and third acts, however, the story starts to breathe more; we see revealing scenarios play out in detail, that are lived in, going beyond highlight peaks. That’s when it all starts to sink in and resonate. (A scene of Nic having dinner with his girlfriend’s family at their house is a great example, of several.)

Yet even as it breathes, von Groeningen still occasionally blindsides scenes with obnoxiously ham-fisted displays.

Still, what distinguishes Beautiful Boy from numerous films of its type (in accounts both real-life and fictional) is its cruel, ruthless candor about what the road to recovery really looks like.

It’s a harrowing journey, often taken over years, marked by relapses – all scary, some life-threatening – even after long stretches of sobriety and sincere, diligent effort. Beautiful Boy depicts, observes, and empathizes with that struggle as well as any dramatization has.

As a film, yes, this one can lay things on a little thick. But as a story that needs to be told, seen, and heard, Beautiful Boy is haunting and vital, not simply as a cautionary tale about the horrors of addiction but, even more so, as an encouragement to the loved ones of addicts that continue to struggle, and fail.

It’s for families suffering through the same crisis, not because this offers clear answers, or an assured hope, or some universal fix-all. Beautiful Boy speaks to those who feel hurt, confused, and betrayed by credibly affirming that only one person can save an addict’s life, and it’s not you.

In family support groups, there are “3 C’s”: you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it. But Beautiful Boy offers a plausible way to navigate it.

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