Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Screenplay: Luke Davies & Felix Van Groeningen based on Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff & Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff
Cinematography: Ruben Impens; Editing: Nico Leunen; Production Design: Ethan Tobman; Art Direction: Patrick M. Sullivan Jr.; Costumes: Emma Potter
Stars: Steve Carell (David Sheff), Timothée Chalamet (Nic Sheff), Maura Tierney (Karen Barbour), Amy Ryan (Vicki Sheff), Kaitlyn Dever (Lauren), Andre Royo (Spencer), Stefanie Scott (Julia), Amy Forsythe (Diane), Jack Dylan Grazer (Nic Scheff at 12), Timothy Hutton (Dr. Brown)
Critical response to it has ranged from lukewarm to rapturous, and there were high hopes built into Beautiful Boy prior to release. It seemed like surefire stuff. The story was timely, given the nation’s ongoing opioid epidemic, and it was expected to be a major Oscar player during awards season. But despite respectable reviews, it has hit theaters with little fanfare, doing only modest business.
The general lack of enthusiasm is understandable, given that Belgium director Felix Van Groeningen, who adapted the screenplay with Luke Davies from father-son team David and Nic Sheff’s bestselling memoirs concerning Nic’s (played by Timothée Chalamet) addiction to crystal meth as a teen, and dad David’s (Steve Carell) attempts to help him get clean, has done far better, more challenging work in his native tongue.
But Chalamet’s performance, his first high-profile part since Call Me by Your Name (he’d been wonderfully quirky as an inexperienced pot dealer in Hot Summer Nights, but no one saw that movie during its limited July release), has remained in the awards roundtable discussions. And justifiably so, considering that Beautiful Boy is, in many ways, the ideal follow up to his breakout part last year, which garnered the young performer much favorable attention and a Best Actor nomination. Call Me by Your Name was rounded out with such a tender, touching father-son heart-to-heart near the end, it seems to have inspired the form and shape of Beautiful Boy itself, since the entire film is an expansion on the idea. Conceived and structured along a similar, familial dynamic, its strong focus on the father-son bond serves as the living, beating heart of the story. Unlike Call Me by Your Name however, Beautiful Boy wants to examine what happens when a father does everything right, is as loving and understanding as he can be, affording his son every opportunity to succeed in life, only to watch it all go to hell despite his best efforts; what really happens when love just ain’t enough. Groeningen’s best films have dealt with this theme concerning families faced with internecine crises, who must find a way to overcome their troubles, or risk being torn apart. In Belgica, the director dealt with two brothers who try to run a hopping nightclub, only to find themselves driven apart by a growing addiction to the hedonistic lifestyle. His The Broken Circle Breakdown was about a Belgium musician infatuated with American bluegrass whose marriage unravels following the loss of a child. That film was even nominated for the 2012 foreign language Oscar, but there’s no indication that the disorienting shift in moviemaking locales is what has thrown off the director’s sensitivities. From this portfolio, one can see why Groeningen might have been considered an ideal fit for Beautiful Boy, his English-language debut, but his direction is uninvolving. While emotionally estranging audiences from both story and characters most of the time, it’s the harrowing scenes he arranges between father and son that pull us in, fraught as they are with promising dramatic tension. And like many a foreign film that gets under our skin, Beautiful Boy tends to haunt the viewer, though we feel little upon initial impact.
David, who always “thought we were closer than most fathers and sons” wonders when he became so distanced from little Nicky, when the kid started keeping secrets and locking the old man out of his life. But we’re shown precisely when it happened – at that very moment meth entered the equation. Nic’s idea of bonding with his father consists of cajoling him into jointly smoking a reefer, daring him to do it, calling him chicken, exerting in effect the same sort of playground peer pressure pushers might practice in any school yard across the country. Wanting to share the great passion of his life with his father, so he can understand how good being high makes him feel, this gateway drug will instead tear open an unbridgeable rift between them. And this sequence allows the father to be depicted as an enabler so his son doesn’t think he’s square, rather than just saying no, same as Nic will continue to feel secure about relapsing, knowing his overprotective dad will always be there to scrape him up off the pavement. David will later secretly start experimenting with drugs in private himself, the same way kids do with their parent’s cigarettes and alcohol when they’re not around, wanting to understand the irresistible allure it holds for his son. He thinks it will bring them closer, as Nic suggested toting on that peace pipe would earlier.
Moreover, in a scene that seems to be lurching off in another direction entirely, David even buys dinner for an addicted girl, Diane (Amy Forsythe), he meets in his nocturnal wanderings, in order to grill her about what led her into this lifestyle, studying her like a bug under a microscope in an attempt to better understand his own son. Trying to plot it all out, as if meth addiction could be solved like a mathematical problem, when the father explains, to his boy’s disbelief, that he’s been continuing down this path of scientific rigor, reading up on the subject and researching him, he seems to be acknowledging the truth in his son’s accusation that he was just a glorified guinea pig to him all along (“You’re just embarrassed because I was like this amazing thing, like your special creation or something, and you don’t like who I am now.”), an early, flawed experiment that pulled up just short of perfection.
At least that’s the only clear read I could get on Beautiful Boy – a unique and peculiar variation on the Frankenstein myth. Even in his runaway son’s absentia, the father still seems to be continuing the experiment on his own, collecting research data to support his foregone conclusions, still determined to tinker with his favorite toy until he gets it working properly again. When Nic happens across a draft of his father’s latest project, all about him, and including such lines as “Have you seen my son? Have you seen my beautiful boy? Tell him I miss him,” his gnawing suspicions that he’s been being studied (if to feed his father’s art rather than for purposes of science) are conclusively borne out.
I imagine we’re supposed to see David’s manuscript here as the initial rough draft of the movie we’re watching, a work of art still in its lumpen, pre-sculpted stage, the way David saw his son when still a boy. The peerless opportunity to conscript father and son bestsellers was just too rich a prospect for Hollywood to pass up, double bang for the buck. But the major problem of the film lies with scenarists Groeningen and Davies’ attempt to merge these mismated memoirs into one streamlined, authorial voice, resulting in a push and pull between the opposing perspectives of each intensely personal narrative. Both representative Sheffs, senior and junior, were actively involved as technical consultants during production and Beautiful Boy is scrupulous to weigh everything evenly, circumspect to present the appearance of not casting blame anywhere in particular. But in the interest of keeping true to life, the material doesn’t easily lend itself to being shaped with any satisfying dramatic purpose. By trying to be so balanced and nonjudgmental, Beautiful Boy ends up feeling like a strained, extended Thanksgiving dinner with every pained member of the family holding their tongue and keeping the peace, so as not to ruin the holidays – Ordinary People all over again. An earlier Chalamet title, The Adderall Diaries too was about a fractured father-son relationship and the fallacy of personal memory, the way people reconstruct the past, conveniently skewing it to their own advantage, to make them seem the persecuted hero of their own story. It’s a rich theme, one on ironic display here given the way the Sheffs have played a glossy game of Rashomon with their personal histories, to fully capitalize on the present fortune to be made off it. The tragedies of life have a curious way of proving the joys of art, and they have apparently embraced crystal meth addiction as their lasting claim to fame. Despite David’s initial reticence, it’s now what they want to be remembered for. With two separate books and now this screenplay behind them, it’s become their badge of honor, proving that if you milk misfortune shrewdly enough, every cloud will produce a silver lining. Still their unequivocal source material might have transferred over better in parallel form, allotting each participant the chance to reveal his own truth, rather than squashing them up together into this one overarching take on things. Instead, it should play like reading Helen Keller’s subjective autobiography of her early life, then teacher Annie Sullivan’s drastically differing version of events. Like the all-over the-place selections chosen for the musical track, intended to reflect the emotional journeys of both father and son, despite their differing generations, the tone is at war with itself, pulling us in opposite directions a great deal of the time and leaving the movie split between its competing visions.
The high-minded and family-oriented father wants to treat the story as a cautionary tale about the perils and pitfalls of drug addiction, intending to offer hope and encouragement to those struggling with the same disease; to him the movie offers a platform for the biggest group encounter session imaginable. David Shaff is a respected journalist, and overall Beautiful Boy retains his detached, empirical air of clinical objectivity. With the movie having taken the name of the father’s book rather than the son’s, everything seems to have been slanted toward his perspective, meaning the Nic character is actually off-screen for a good deal of time, leaving things to dramatically flag with flaccidity from one return of the prodigal son to the next. Taking its cues from the father, Beautiful Boy is intended as a hard-hitting editorial exposé on the dangers of meth dependency, complete with scientific broadsides to make things seem more officious, the sort of writing regarded as well-researched. All that’s missing are the footnotes and annotations. The movie follows the lead of its investigative journalist, shuffling through its collection of dry, dusty scientific observations, becoming a veritable case study at times, with LisaGay Hamilton popping up to offer prolonged clinical assessments, unspooling the quantifiable facts concerning meth addiction as if they were story explication – how using more and more causes irreversible nerve damage, wearing down addicts’ biochemical resistance and increasing the compulsion in them to use, trapping them in a vicious cycle. But there’s an unseemly absolution factor in the film’s providing this biological basis for Nic’s meth addiction, absolving him of any personal culpability in the habit. With successful recovery in the single digits, the impression we’re given is that he’s not at fault, that no mere mortal could escape the tentacles of methamphetamines. Taking the drug has altered the biochemical constitution of his brain, turning his dependence on speed into a physiological need rather than a matter of willpower. Beautiful Boy argues that prodigy Nic is suffering from an illness and so deserves pity rather than scorn, as opposed to, say, your garden variety recreational abuser.
Groeningen filters everything through this serious veneer of medical minded mesh, yet the real Nic was clever enough once he could think clearly after eight years sober (as the end scrawl informs us), to return to writing, committing events to paper, turning a smooth profit from his harrowing personal experiences. And it remains this secondary story thread, told from his perspective, that keeps diverting the picture in another direction, undermining his father’s retelling. Nic wants to throw viewers into the real grime and grunge of the meth addict existence as it’s experienced, as he experienced it, but the movie stops just short of taking us there. Instead Beautiful Boy uses the Shaff’s joint experiences as a teachable moment, depriving audiences of their natural right to revel in the sordidness of the situation. As a result, the movie has been emotionally anesthetized, like a meth head gone cold turkey. And the well-meaning results are so sluggy it might have actually benefited from some old-fashioned, exploitative kick. When it takes off from the son’s own account, digressing on his asides, it perks up perceptibly. Such as when Nic happens across a girl he apparently knew back when he was in the scene, Lauren (Kaitlyn Dever from Short Term 12 and Last Man Standing on TV, she sometimes resembles Leelee Sobieski but you’ll need a sharp eye to notice she’s not the same girl he briefly dated back in college), just so he can hook her on meth. Misery loving company, he turns her into a junkie so the film can morph briefly into a variation on the Lee Remick role in Days of Wine and Roses, the girl joining him in his freebasing so she doesn’t feel so alone when he’s spaced out for hours in his own little world. For some reason, the film depicts Nic’s experience of falling off the wagon and introducing her to his habit through the fog of some hazy wet dream, like that summer by the pool in Call Me by Your Name. It’s the cloudburst following a long drought, the way it must have seemed to him at the time. Yet when the indigent couple starts scrounging about, living from hand to mouth in their squatter’s existence on the road, we seem to suddenly be in another movie entirely, with generous samplings from both Drugstore Cowboy and Panic in Needle Park. This tangent follows the same path eked out as far back as The Lost Weekend, mining the audience’s prurient interest by showing us just how far addicts will go to get their fix, as they become increasingly strung out and hit rock bottom. And as with most movies of this sort, it’s unfortunately the addicts who seem like the most fascinating characters anywhere around, their inserts the most colorful portions of the movie, unwittingly justifying what Nic said about meth turning his monotone world into Technicolor. They make heroin seem chic again.
But even here, one had every right to expect more truthful and intimate insight into the horrors of drug addiction from the inside, given Nic’s personal acquaintance with it. Screenwriter Davies too is a recovering heroin addict, but the movie fails to help us understand the real roots of the main character’s dependency, much less how he eventually manages to kick the habit after so many fruitless previous attempts. And this seems inexcusable in a film informed by the firsthand source material written by the people who actually lived through it. So surprisingly, for all its laboriously researched facts, Beautiful Boy may be least successful in distilling the nature of drug addiction. The father tries the entire film long to get a handle on his son’s disease, believing if he can break it down like a science he can cure and reconnect with him. But the movie can’t really explain the nature of the beast, not even in those passages where Nic takes to poetic flights of fancy trying to articulate his attraction to meth. So instead of getting audiences to buy into his dependence, we must just accept it as a given.
As in Call Me by Your Name, Chalamet, prodigiously gifted himself, is again playing a young artistic prodigy, a burgeoning writer this go round, as well as the part of prodigal son, as he did on stage. And what this portrait of the artist as a young man seeks to illuminate is the self-destructive streak that threatens to snuff out that burning talent at the very beginning of what promises to be a spectacular career. There’s nothing more tragic than a great talent gone unfulfilled. Certainly this Nic, who’s already unanchored, in the deepest throes of addiction upon introduction, is depicted in the most traditional terms imaginable – that of a tortured genius who needs drugs to expand his mind, the same reason bohemian artists used absinthe, trying to take the edge off mundane reality, embarking on a vision quest to see beyond the veil.
As Nic writes while under the influence, the world went from black and white to color, and like a suicidal depressive, he seems to need hallucinogens just to register the vivid beauty all around him. But the film fails to pencil in precisely why he felt his life before was so tragic, so much so that he needed meth to make it bearable. Nic’s feelings of being ‘alienated and isolated’ are said to always pass, but we’re never given to understand why he feels alienated from his family in the first place. From what we can tell he’s just a rebellious teen railing against the sterile conformity of staid, middle-class existence. But considering his father’s a talented writer and his stepmother a non-traditional artist, it’s not as though his home life were devoid of creative stimuli. Tuning in and dropping out doesn’t compute if your parents are already aging hippies.
When he accuses his father of suffocating him, in their woodsy, eco-friendly home on the outskirts of an open forest separating them from the bracing air of the Pacific, we can’t fathom what in the world he’s babbling about. His brain cells might already be fried given the nonsensical dialogue he’s forced to spout off. He appears to want for nothing, yet Nic claims he felt complete for the first time only when he tried meth, which is why he couldn’t stop using it afterward. Still the suggestion is that there’s a void inside, that he’s trying to ‘find another way to fill this big, black hole.’ But no matter how much junk he shoots up, it’s never enough to slake the ravenous need for more and more. He’s like a soldier who can no longer adjust to civilian life after war has turned him into an adrenaline junkie.
The general premise of Beautiful Boy seems vaguely similar to that of the Julia Roberts vehicle Ben is Back, due out later in the year, pitting Chalamet’s turn as this self-destructive, drug addicted son driving his worrying father to paroxysms of desperation as he endeavors to save him from himself, against Lady Bird co-star Lucas Hedges’ similar turn as the drug-addicted son of a resolute mother who’s determined to do the same. The familiar premise and confrontational dramaturgy has the feel of an old ABC afterschool special, the way Ordinary People did back in the ’80s. And Chalamet gives the sort of emotionally messy turn that vividly evokes the earlier Timothy Hutton’s Oscar-winning turn in that film. The Chalamet of today even resembles the Timothy of then, with the same inky mop and emaciated angularity (Chalamet was required to lose weight for his hospitalization scenes). One recalls the emotional core of Ordinary People revolving around the Hutton character’s own intensive psychotherapy sessions with a menschy shrink played by Judd Hirsch. So when Hutton himself pops up here as Nic’s own case worker, having assumed the part of pseudo-therapist himself, the perfect circularity seems to bring a large measure of one’s own cinema going life full round. Hutton, who came out of a clear blue to impress everyone with his all-emotions-bared performance as a shaky, suicidal teen, seems to be passing the baton here, and Chalamet, who’s been near perfectly cast, proves a worthy successor. Hiding behind a shock of hair that droops into his face, his lean shanks and sharply angular, lanky length of bone leaves him loping about like a lost gazelle. Chalamet remains one of our most vulnerable looking young actors, the way Mia Farrow did back in the ‘60s, when she was at her most waifish. And he’s banked up such a store of good will with audiences that even when the character he’s playing comes off as something of a rotter, we can still feel for him thanks to the actor in the part. We’re meant to abide his teenage angst and James Deanish moping because we remember what a sweet kid he used to be in the previous movies we’ve seen him in, in effect placing us in the same position as his overly vigilant, nostalgic pop. This is most clearly encapsulated in the flashback, where David fears his inexperienced son has been swallowed up by life’s turbulent waters while learning to surf, only to find there was never any need to fear. It’s a well-established fact that actors love playing addicts, drunks and the handicapped because such roles give them carte blanche to really let loose and get ugly with their craft, indulging in a full range of ostentatious tics, spasms and theatrical excess. Though actor’s vanity has only allowed Chalamet, a boy who wants to remain beautiful onscreen, to mar his features with a slight nasal drip and dry, chapped lips, even in the depths of addiction, this demanding role still affords him an impressive showcase. Instead of relying on outward show, Chalamet internalizes his character’s torment, which may be even more extraordinary in its way. This is the first film where he’s put that densely packed talent briefly suggested, in fits and starts in previous films, on full, unadulterated display, and it’s exciting to finally watch him really throwing himself into a part, determined to impress us with what he can do, giving all of himself to his art. He goes all out here, to a degree he’s never been required to do before, even in his much beloved, less demonstrative role in Call Me by Your Name last year. One may wish his character had been built from the ground up with stronger scaffolding to support him. Chalamet’s playing a living person here, one who had direct input during filming, but his superficially written role feels as if it had been constructed out of the snips and snails of a screenwriter’s imagination. But that’s the fault of the writing rather than the acting and Chalamet manages to fill in what was missing on paper, cutting right through the well varnished, picture postcard surface sheen. It’s an ideal opportunity for him to affectingly imprint on audiences with his effusive brand of overwrought weepiness. Chalamet acts to a different beat, hardly ever responding in the ways one might expect, which makes his performances perpetually interesting, since we can never be quite sure what he might come up with next. Professionally trained at the LaGuardia High School for the performing arts, this goofy little punk still comes across as a total natural, among the most instinctive and unconscious of actors. Even in his showier scenes, one never quite catches him plying his craft; he never seems to be straining for his effects. When his big moments come, one intuitively believes them because they seem to well up so organically out of his characters, without any premeditation whatsoever. Despite the stagy quality of those encounter scenes with his father, he seems to be speaking absolute truth, lashing out emotionally, then collapsing back upon himself as he shrinks inward, wishing he could retract his words, since he knows he’s doing himself no favors. It’s funny watching his edgy hustler act, the same way it was with Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever many years ago, trying to extort money from his parents as he falls through the cracks, among the dregs of society. His meth habit becomes the great social leveler as this privileged kid from a good family finds himself on skid row, being pulled out the gutter by his old man. He seems to want to degrade himself, to get back at his celebrated writer father, same way Isabelle Adjani did in The Story of Adele H., by ruining his pristine and idealized image of him as the perfect son in this spectacularly sordid fashion. He feels he can only reclaim his individual identity by destroying his father’s ‘creation,’ his idealized notion of who he wanted him to be – a chip off the old block. Nic claims during his testimonial in front of his support group that he wants his parents to be proud of him, but seems to find emotional catharsis only in destroying that which his father had built and into which he’d invested so much, his life’s work, wrecking himself in the knowledge there’s really nothing David can do to stop him. He only feels in complete control of his own life, that it is indeed his life, in the midst of obliterating himself.
A frazzled, exposed live wire, his Nic wavers with startling alacrity from secure stability to paranoid abandon and back, and it’s fascinating watching a performer as skillful as this consciously allowing his acting to become slack, addiction leaving him slurring and unstrung. Chalamet seems to be doing a high-tension variation on the tortured Byronic romantic, only with drugs as his ardent object of desire, his abismos de passion. Slow dancing with death, he’s like a moth to the flame. Shooting up more and more, his soul-fire burning through translucent skin stretched tight as a drum over protruding bone, he appears to have a higher purpose as he lay dying in the filthy squalor of a public toilet, discovering divine beauty in his own annihilation, the way Nic Cage did with drink in Leaving Las Vegas.
Though it’s never expressly articulated, I get the impression Nic likes the way drugs specifically make him feel like he’s out of control. But the way he rationalizes the habit in his journal entries, trying to verbalize the indescribable emotions bubbling forth from within him, he makes it sound as if he were merely messing with meth to expand his mind, open up new, heretofore undreamed of avenues of creative, artistic expression. Unfortunately the film never digresses to the point of letting us see what’s actually going on in his mind at the height of his ecstasies, what visions keep stirring his soul, drawing him back like a siren song. So we only see the toll drugs are taking on him physically and on his relationships, from the outside in. Nic begins experimenting with drugs for the sake of art, same way his father begins experimenting with them for the sake of science. Like Dr. Edwin Katskee, who tried to take observational notes on what was happening to his body while he was dying from a self-administered cocaine overdose, Nic’s journal entries become increasingly erratic and unintelligible as his habit takes hold, slowly devolving into gibberish and eventually pages of pure, blank space. This aspiring author is ultimately deprived of his capacity to write altogether, forfeiting his first love to this higher power. What was meant to expand his talent ends up cutting it off at the wrist, as he uses his arm to shoot up rather than take pen in hand.
The original version of Beautiful Boy was edited over seven months, with several versions being drafted and rejected by the director along the way. Groeningen finally had his own trusted editor Nico Leunen flown in to help piece together the finished product. This frantic, last minute reshuffling in the editing room to try and cobble together a passable print, should have been warning that something was amiss. And when directors fail to get the proper results they want, they’ll frequently try to force it in this way, pasting scenes together in a fractured manner to whip up emotions that just aren’t there. And all the resulting flashbacks and flash forwards in Beautiful Boy serve to unduly muddy the waters, complicating an otherwise straightforward narrative, forcing the audience to take a minute after each transition to orientate themselves to where they now are in the timeline. The editing is like flashy, cinematic sleight of hand to distract us from the fact that we’re not feeling as much emotionally as we should be. It’s not clear what went wrong with the initial cuts, but this version that has finally been released is structured like a jigsaw puzzle, as the father tries to understand his own story, revisiting the places he spent with Nic as a boy, determine where it all went so irreparably wrong, at what point he should’ve chosen the road not taken. The snatches of “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof (“Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don’t remember growing older. When did they?”) we hear playing on the soundtrack, pretty much encapsulate the father’s wish to keep his child safely cocooned from life’s dangers. And this Peter Pan perception of the way the boy was as a seemingly idealized, perfect child, before blemish, and David’s desire to arrest his son’s development at that very point, prior to him falling apart, would seem to negate the experience of growing up in the first place, falling down and getting back up again, learning from one’s mistakes. This aura of arrested development extends into other aspects of the film as well. The story appears to unfold over many years, but David’s younger kids never appear to age, as he seems to wish his eldest son never had. Unfortunately this causes a strange fissure in our perceptions while watching the film.
Chalamet has been onscreen since he was a kid, but the actors who play him in the freeform flashbacks at different stages in his youth throw us into a dizzying sense of spatial distortion since we know when he was their age he looked nothing like Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays him at fourteen, Zachary Rifkin who plays him at 8, or even Kue Lawrence, who plays him at four and six. Which might relate to the movie’s conjectures about the children we’re raising never turning out to be the people we thought they would be (“There are moments that I look at him and I wonder who he is.”). But the lack of physical resemblance still leaves us feeling strangely disassociated from the character at these various stages in his life, since we can’t make the visual link. The director seems well aware of the discrepancy too, begging the audience’s indulgence as he uses these placeholders as proxy. And it’s not just past Timothées we’re contending with here, but also future tenses of himself, such as when his Nic stares in foreshadowing recognition at the old derelict at the treatment facility he may one day become if he remains on his current path, like Scrooge confronted by the ghost of Christmas future.
The father may struggle the entire film to come to terms with why his son turned to drugs, but if one chooses to read between the lines there are clear intimations of what’s eating away at Nic. Their tense altercation at the restaurant makes it clear that, at least partially, he began abusing because he didn’t feel he could ever measure up to the unrealistic expectations placed on him by his successful writer father. Meth is the only thing that takes the sharp edge off the considerable pressure he’s under to make good. Evidence that drugs are the only means of easing his burdens is offered when he’s taken to meet his girlfriend’s (Stefanie Scott) folks and must escape from the uncomfortable feeling that he’s being apprised and assessed by slipping away to the bathroom the first chance he gets, and popping some prescription pills from their medicine cabinet. But just when we’re expecting him to disgrace himself in front of her folks, revealing he’s sloshed, the scene just fades out. Indeed Nic is an old hand at remaining high-functioning. Even when under the influence, he holds his methamphetamines extremely well, without shakes or delirium tremens or anything. Even his father, who feels he knows his son inside out, can’t tell half the time if he’s really stopped using. Meaning the drug-addled kid can unflinchingly stare him right in the eyes without blinking, and boldly swear he’s not bombed out of his mind, which he clearly is right then.
Understandably, trust issues sprout up between them. And in an excoriating scene, that recalls the earlier one we’d seen with the young Nic first learning to surf, his father’s lack of faith in him comes to a head. Circling the drain rather than actually saying why he doesn’t want his firstborn taking his younger son Jasper (Christian Convery) swimming, it becomes clear to a crushed Nic that his father doesn’t feel he can be trusted with the boy any longer, the way Anne Hathaway couldn’t be relied on in Rachel Getting Married. And when Nic subsequently fails to fulfill his promise of attending Jasper’s swim meet the lack of faith in him seems fully warranted, putting us in mind of irresponsible uncle Mark Ruffalo’s failure to reappear at the end of You Can Count on Me. Nic’s regarded as a bad influence on his impressionable younger siblings, someone they shouldn’t be exposed to, and so ends up being pushed further and further outside the safety and security of the family circle, leaving him treading uncharted waters, with no other recourse but to turn more to meth for comfort. His parents even hide the spare keys so Nic can no longer come and go with impunity. His increasingly out-of-control behavior leaves him posing a threat to the sanctity of the household itself and it’s his hostile act of forcing his way into their home for instance, that prompts his father to close the iron door on him.
Early on, Groeningen is careful to depict the father reading a copy of Mailer’s The Beautiful and the Damned, and we’re meant to see the tragic, crystal-meth-addicted boy at movie’s center in the same divine light, the same way the father who dotes on him does. The film’s title is flattering as all get out to young Chalamet, but one senses the term is not being used in its modern sense, but more in the classical meaning of the word, denoting symmetry, proportion and order. At least that’s what’s suggested given Nic’s charge that his father saw him as some ‘perfect thing’ to be molded into his idea of who he wanted him to be. Yet the pressure of being held to these high standards meant he couldn’t help but collapse under the weight of such great expectations.
Nic himself seems haunted by the high points of his past, which we see in flashback, his high school graduation, his creative writing classes in college, when he seemed on the verge of great things, on top of the world, and now tormented by the crushing fact he never lived up to his early promise, disappointing everyone. This is, I think, the key to the movie’s own fraught thematic structure, wherein the chaos incarnated by the flawed, imperfect, no longer ‘beautiful’ golden boy disarrays the precise father’s methodically arranged view of both the world and his son, the person he thought he was, and the man he wanted him to be. Unlike David, who seems to despise disorder, Nic is fatally attracted to the roiling darkness and turmoil meth introduces into his life (“I’m attracted to craziness.”).
Having withdrawn from writing and quit his water polo team, when Nic further explains the obvious fact that he’s not ready to go to college given his present circumstances, the overachieving father responds like the perfectionist mother did in Ordinary People upon hearing her son had quit the swim team. David will likewise advise wife Karen (Maura Tierney) that he doesn’t think she should advertise to friends and family what her stepson is going through, so that it doesn’t haunt him “for when he wants to get on with his life,” remaining a blot on his good name. To the father, his son’s troubles should be kept in the family. He believes Nic’s addiction is transient, just a passing phase to be stricken from the record, rather than the defining tragedy of their lives.
David’s reactionary response is revealing, but it’s not as if nothing had ever cracked the paint of his perfect family portrait prior to the crisis portended by Nic’s drug addiction. But while this divorced father is well into a second marriage with only civil relations with his ex-wife, there isn’t any suggestion that Nic’s current situation was a desperate cry for attention from him, as it was with Chalamet’s equally out-of-control juvenile delinquent in The Adderall Diaries, a result of the once golden, now forgotten son being supplanted in his affections by a newer, younger replacement family. Indeed, in this case, the father seems incapable of finding satisfaction in his new kids, raising them up right, because he’s too preoccupied with finding out where he went wrong with his firstborn.
Instead of wringing his hands over the situation, the filmmakers seem to want the father to apply some tough love, forcing his self-indulgent offspring to straighten up, convinced that only by letting his baby go, bread cast upon the waters, can he draw him back into the family fold. Yet when he does, refusing to let Nic come back home until he kicks the habit, we’re not sure how to take his sudden hardening of the heart, though certainly the film goes out of its way to sanctify his steely resolve, accompanying his arrival at a support group for friends and families of addicts with arias the aural consistency of angelic halos. Finally abnegating responsibility for his son’s welfare, washing his hands of him when he never wanted to let him go before, David’s behavior isn’t seen as abject cruelty but rather the hardest thing for a parent to do, since he’s consciously consigning his life away, accepting the inevitability of losing his son, if he continues on his present downward spiral.
When his ex-wife Vicki warns that Nic may die if they don’t do anything to help, David, now resigned to the fact that he can’t save his son single-handed responds that, even if they did step in Nic would willfully continue killing himself all the same. For years he’s been mourning for the living rather than the dead, never knowing when he’d receive that dreaded call to come identify the body. So in a way it’s a relief to finally let go. Giving your child up for dead this way may fall in line with the twelve-step program, but we can’t kick the perception that the father’s meant to be making a sanctimonious martyr of himself by turning his son out of home, wanting us to see how much more it’s going to hurt him than Nic. And if this is the tack parents are being encouraged to take, we can’t fathom why, after making such a spectacle of disowning him, David again returns to care for his son at film’s end.
The part of Vicki, Nic’s seemingly estranged biological mother is played by Amy Ryan, and she seems as much an absent figure in her boy’s life as she did in Gone Baby Gone. Appearing to be in recovery from some sort of unclassified addiction herself, Ryan’s performance could be seen as a riff on her Oscar-nominated earlier role, a means to redeem that disreputable character. Having abdicated to his father the responsibility of taking care of him once before, she works overtime to make amends to the son she gave up. It’s here, at the boy’s lowest point that she proves her full worth, embracing her maternal instincts, coming back into his life to make up for all the times she wasn’t there before. Even if she can’t save him, she still wants to be there for him at the end. Certainly this relationship warranted a more in-depth examination, but Beautiful Boy doesn’t want to be distracted from the father-son bond by focusing too much on mother love. Which may explain why Vicki felt squeezed out in the first place, but no matter. It’s a missed opportunity to more emotionally round out the film with a lovely story thread so full of lilting, unrealized grace. As a kid, in flashback, Nic seemed reticent to leave his father’s side to go visit his mother, but in his drug-induced state, when it’s meant to be the narcotics talking, he says that she should have been given full custody. So it feels like the penultimate betrayal when he turns his back on his father now, to seek out his mother’s nurturing arms. Under her auspices, Nic’s assigned a sponsor, Spencer (Andre Royo) to show him how great life can be clean, though we never come to learn who this guy is or where from. Characters frequently float in and out of the film, the way they do during reminiscences in stage plays, without coming fully into focus. Spencer’s just there all of a sudden, only to disappear just as suddenly when he fails to talk an on-the-mend Nic out of relapsing, his AA homilies failing to resonate when they matter most. Interestingly though, the closest Nic comes to getting clean is during this time when he’s with his mother. When he returns to his father for a brief stay, he almost immediately relapses. Which may be why David relishes scapegoating his ex-wife for this, rather than himself, accusing her of not keeping a closer eye on their son. He’d like to maintain 24/7 surveillance on him, keeping eternal watch, like those Salvador Daliesque pictures his second wife paints.
David assures Nic that only he can take himself in hand, which is ironic since the entire film is about him playing savior, trying to rescue Nic, wanting his son to look up to him as his hero, the way he did as a child, helplessly raging that his endangered boy’s alone out there somewhere, where he can’t protect him. When the father lullabies the young Nic to sleep with the John Lennon song that gave its name to the title, the verse emphasized is “The dragons on the run, because daddy’s here,” suggesting that David believes only he can keep the monkey off his son’s back, slaying his metaphorical dragon. That junkie, Diane, who relates that her parents don’t care about her welfare, wouldn’t care if they found out the straits she’s in, articulates David’s worst fears of what his son must think of him as a negligent parent.
Maura Tierney, as Nic’s big-hearted stepmother, has one great scene, where she hops in her SUV and takes off in hot pursuit of her panicking stepson when he tries to flee upon being apprehended on the premises. It’s not clear what she intended to do if she caught up to him, or if she was just acting on the animal instinct to protect her brood, but this high-speed car chase allows the inner light to finally dawn on her that she’s doing precisely what her husband always has, riding down Nic to try to save him from himself. This is likely why she’ll be the one to subsequently convince her husband not to run off after Nic in another futile rescue attempt. There’s no point trying to save a son hell bent on his own destruction. The movie is like a big-screen variation on those ambush-style interventions on reality TV, its covert purpose to make parents feel less guilty about not having done everything in their power to save their drug-addicted loved ones, offering them a sort of absolution.
In his last big, dramatic, Oscar-nominated turn in Foxcatcher, Steve Carell’s character took a young wrestler under his wing, trying to exert a similar degree of absolute control over him, much as he does his son here, only to have his prize catch squirm out of his grasp. And there’s a similar, vaguely unsettling threat in the way David attempts to keep Nic under his thumb. When the boy returns home late without calling for instance, he’s humiliatingly required, in a manner that makes it clear he has no choice in the matter, to pee in a cup for a home administered drug test, his apologetic father contradictorily explaining with an oxymoron, “We trust you. We just need some proof.” In such instances one can understand Nic’s dogged desire to remain safely outside his father’s sphere of influence, even if that means subsisting on the fringes of society.
Such as when he reveals to his folks during a group session “I think I need to be independent,” actually wishing to remain in the halfway house rather than returning home to them, knowing he’ll fall right back into the same fixed patterns of behavior, negating the fear expressed by his little brother, that he would no longer be himself when he returned from rehab. When he backslides, he clearly proves that nothing has changed, that he’s “still the same old Nic.” When he meets up with his father at that diner, his pretext remains surprising consistent as he claims to need the money to get away from the bad vibes of San Francisco by moving to New York, beaming that he’ll be on his own for the first time, responsible for himself. The pretext he provides is that it will be easier for him to kick the habit there, away from all the familiar triggers and associations. But the fact that he wants to get all the way to the opposite coast, clear across the country from his father, says much.
Playing Chalamet’s pater noster in Call Me by Your Name, hardworking character actor Michael Stuhlbarg, a Tony Award-nominated Shakespearean actor, finally connected with audiences after years of toil on stage and screen. And Carell seems to have been angling for a similar quality by revealing the softer and more emotionally benign side of himself as the concerned dad here. He’s even grown in a similar salt and pepper beard to enhance the resemblance. One can sense him determinedly sawing away at the part, the way we did in Foxcatcher, diligently chewing at the role like a cow on cud. So erstwhile to impress with his dramatic chops, he’s like a performer who keeps hammering at a joke, hoping to forcibly drum up the requisite response lacking in the audience. It can be torturous watching a comedian tune themselves up, or as here, dampen themselves down for what they feel may be a rare, worthwhile and rewarding dramatic role. Carell is working at half-mast, and his usually sharp timing seems muted by moist heart throbs. His outsize talent ends up straitjacketed in this role, suffocating him the same way his son feels he’s being in the film. He’s not bad, and many have spoken of his performance fondly. But alongside a naturalistic actor like Chalamet, one can hear the gears turning in his head, like an automaton. Given his unwavering calm and reassurance, the Carell character would drive anyone to drugs, though I think this is largely the fault of the films positioning him as the more over-studied rationalist in his relationship with Chalamet’s inchoate Nic, sense to his sensibility, sparking emotional firestorms between them. Chalamet’s a frazzled squiggle to Carell’s perfectly straight line, like that two-sided Kandinsky painting of order and chaos in Six Degrees of Separation. Just as Chalamet, as an actor, is in possession of a rare, wild talent, this inexplicable streak of wildness comes out in his Nic as well.
The ravenous cravings Nic knows he can’t control terrify his father as much as they do audiences when they flare up so unexpectedly in fits and starts, seemingly out of nowhere. Like the one we see playing out on TV, he’s the hurricane his father fears blowing into their lives, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. The fascinating discrepancy between Carell and Chalamet’s acting is akin to watching Marlon Brando unleash his raw, realistic Method for the first time, upon poor Vivian Leigh’s stage-trained diction and stylized theatricality in Streetcar. The two together, pulling toward their opposing extremes for maximum impact, spark the only dramatic tension to be had here, leaving us with a contact high. We keep waiting for more crackling confrontations between them like the one at the diner, where much more about father and son will be revealed, and more sense made of how they got to this impasse in their relationship. But unfortunately the film lets us down on this score, disappointing us almost as much as Nic does his dad.