What do you do when you have the world at your feet – after giving one of the richest performances in recent years, as the centre of a story of first heartbreak at just twenty-one? Where do you go, having achieved what many actors only dream of in perfectly capturing the agonies of a lovesick teenager, and having spent the year as the talk of the film world? These were the questions laid before Timotheé Chalamet following his work as Elio Perlman in Call Me By Your Name, the role he will now find himself eternally associated with – which, for clarification, is no bad thing. Chalamet has chosen wisely following his emergence as a boy wonder, with the aptly titled Beautiful Boy – a film which allows him to truly captivate through his depiction of raw emotion, not dissimilar to that of his yearnful Elio, and reminds us of just what it is that makes him such a transfixing young figure.
Beautiful Boy is directed by Felix Van Groeningen, in his English-language debut, and is adapted from Nic Sheff’s memoir of the drug addiction that began in his late adolescence and plagued him into adulthood. Chalamet is the eponymous beautiful boy, Nic himself, while Steve Carell – in a continuation of his current streak in taking on significantly more ‘serious’ roles than that of his Michael Scott in The Office – is his father, David; who spends the film drifting in between feelings of helplessness and guilt, left to fester in the absence of his son. We are introduced to David not as Nic begins his descent into the use of crystal meth, but as he realises that his beloved boy is no longer a child but, instead, now a lost young man confined by the trappings of addiction.
The decision made by Van Groeningen not to give Beautiful Boy a linear narrative serves as both an inspired aspect of the film and as a pitfall. By having us dip in and out of Nic’s life, Beautiful Boy avoids feeling like the kind of slogged-out drama we’ve seen many a time before and allows us to truly understand the cyclical nature of addiction – Nic appears on the verge of recovery and then, weeks and months later, we find him in a state of disarray. A dependency on drugs does not have an end, it does not come in acts; it is a life-long affliction that can veer those affected from apparent healing to complete destruction within a matter of days. Beautiful Boy knows this and most of its success comes from acknowledging the recurrent core of substance abuse. With this said, however, we must consider the fact that Van Groeningen’s non-linear style can occasionally feel jarring. It is easy to become muddled between the constant leaps in time that Beautiful Boy makes, as a great many moments are somewhat glossed over to convey the seemingly endless cycle of Nic’s recovery and relapse. While, as aforementioned, this prevents the film from slipping into predictable mundanity, it can also leave us feeling a little confused – which, unfortunately, is not the singular flaw of Beautiful Boy.
Often, it feels as if this movie could be easily forgotten were it not for the central talent on display. As Nic and David, Chalamet and Carell both give deeply empathetic, mature performances. As a result, they transform Van Groeningen’s film from a relatively familiar and formulaic piece and make it into something altogether more memorable. Chalamet’s tenderness, his emotional intelligence, is to be expected. Following the meticulously crafted care with which he approached Elio, the delicacy he exerts as Nic – whose torture soaks into both his physical and spiritual self – comes as no surprise. In one scene, he appears, bedraggled, at the diner he and his father used to frequent and lurches between denial and desperation. As Nic insists that he has gotten clean, that he is sober at this very minute in fact, Chalamet’s voice strains in such a way that he returns Nic to the child that David knew, the ‘beautiful boy’ he raised – he pleads and begs his way through lunch and it is moments such as these, where Chalamet truly submerges himself in the depths of Nic’s suffering, that elevate Beautiful Boy to a higher standard than the rest of the film implies. Carell’s work, too, is to be admired; naturally, he is given less to dig into than Chalamet as the principal receiver of Nic’s outbursts and anguish. Yet, he is able to find a way to express the idea – often ignored – that unconditional parental love sometimes requires one to let their child face their addiction, to grasp the gravity of their situation without a safety net, by telling Nic that he cannot help him again, only to re-enter the cycle that he has already spent years in. Though it is Chalamet that will, deservedly, receive the vast majority of attention upon the film’s inevitable awards campaign, Carell should not go unnoticed. It is through working in tandem with Carell that Chalamet’s performance can reach its emotional zenith, as the final act ends with a shot of father and son – sobering in its simplicity, as Nic becomes a boy caught in his dad’s embrace once again.
Together, Chalamet and Carell rescue Beautiful Boy from falling into an archetypal melodrama and while it is not without its failings, it should be seen for its willingness to wrap itself around such a complex subject with a raw and sympathetic approach. It may not be the most perfect film of the year, it may not always be remembered in the way it wishes, but it is noble in its intentions, measured in its performances – even if it does not always achieve everything that it wants to.
By Hannah Ryan