It’s hard to recommend a movie like Beautiful Boy, because it’s like encouraging someone to watch a two-hour commercial for an animal shelter. It’s not fun, it’s often painful and the maximum response lies somewhere between a reluctant shrug and a deep sigh. Beautiful Boy is about addiction, and it has the pieces and structure to broach that subject effectively, but when it’s over, it’s hard to feel anything but resignation. What are you supposed to do now?
Selling Beautiful Boy begins and ends with Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet. The movie rests on their shoulders, so as they excel and falter, your connection to the story shifts likewise. There are structural flourishes at play here and a stout soundtrack, but—by design—few distractions besides. That’s okay for the most part, because Carell and Chalamet rise to almost every challenge.
Beautiful Boy is based on two memoirs, one by David Sheff and one by his son Nic Sheff, about Nic’s struggles with meth addiction. As a movie, Beautiful Boy is more focused on Dave’s perspective. It positions him as our viewfinder in the very first scene, so we follow Nic’s addiction, recovery and relapse largely from Dave’s side of the relationship. As you can imagine, it’s not a pretty story. In fact, it’s more challenging than you’re likely expecting. You’re going to see things that make you screw up your face or shift in your seat or—yep—cry and cry. Beautiful Boy wants you to feel the pain of addiction from every angle. At times, you will.
Beautiful Boy is cut and edited closer to a series of shorts than a traditional three-act movie. That’s to say there isn’t a traditional beginning, middle and end. We begin the movie one year into Nic’s crystal meth addiction and proceed to move backward and forward in time, between scenes from Nic’s childhood, scenes of Nic’s rehabilitation and scenes of Dave trying to make sense of it all. A timeline emerges, but you’re never anywhere except the immediate scene. It creates an exhausting, wading-through-mud feeling that reflects more of the subject than the movie itself. Beautiful Boy traps you in a world of “not again.” You lose a sense of time and progress, so there’s no indication if or when the ending is in sight.
It’s an effective tool, and makes the final scene feel like someone pulled a knife out of your stomach after leaving it in for two hours. There’s no relief, just a fresh wound to address.
Of course, all the pain would be for nothing if Carell and Chalamet didn’t deliver on portraying Dave and Nic’s relationship. They carry the movie. Carell, for his part, is serviceable as Dave. He has some small glints of selfishness and resentment that flesh out the performance and complicate his approach to helping his son, but when the script asks him to reach some high notes, he doesn’t quite hit them. Carell’s established himself as a revelatory dramatic actor—he can shoulder a movie like Foxcatcher or overachieve in a supporting role like in The Big Short and The Way Way Back—but this one will be a line on his resume instead of a highlight.
Chalamet, on the other hand, is preposterous in how good he is. The 21-year-old is tasked with small, naturalistic beats and huge breakfast-table shouting matches, but he handles every scene with total precision. He’s a Swiss army knife, and he’s already mastered every tool (his smile in Beautiful Boy can melt you away as fast as it can mess you up). Nic will do things that make you want to close your eyes and turn your head away, but Chalamet is so terrific you’ll hang onto him no matter what. He makes the whole experience of Beautiful Boy worth it, and given the movie’s lingering effects, he will be the first thing you want to talk about when it’s over. His performance is a life preserver.
It feels conflicting to describe Beautiful Boy that way, like it’s something you need saving from, but that impulse persists nonetheless. Some concluding text contextualizes the movie within the American opioid epidemic (and offers some essential updates on Dave and Nic), but it’s hard to know what we’re supposed to do with that.
Addiction isn’t a hopeful circumstance, and Beautiful Boy is fair not to heap sugar on a subject that shouldn’t be sweetened, but the movie’s cyclical structure and abrupt ending means it doesn’t galvanize you toward any type of action. When you look at the movie from a distance, you understand it doesn’t have to do that, but after spending two hours investing in such a personal story, it feels guilt-inducing to leave without an urge to respond, become more aware or carry forward a sense of hope.
So for what it is, Beautiful Boy is an ambitious and challenging family drama. It showcases a pair of fine performances and some filmmaking touches that elevate its mood in an oppressive (and appropriate) way, but in cutting you adrift, it bars you from reaching its heart, and that might be a grave mistake.
Because when popular culture doesn’t galvanize us to act on difficult truths, we’re left to make that choice on our own, and that means we’re usually going to take an easier path. Beautiful Boy is important and demanding, but when something makes it this easy to turn away from that challenge, change is going to be a tough ask. Addiction works the same way.
Tyler Daswick is a senior writer at Relevant. Follow him on Twitter @tylerdaswick.