Someday Productions LLC. and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of BEAUTIFUL BOY
Long ago, I learned that I was a magnet for tales of the human condition, no doubt why I became a psychotherapist. Individuals I’ve only just met proffer the most intimate and often distressing details of their lives to me; but I’m also fascinated by such stories in media – in the news or in various modes of entertainment. While difficult to face at times, the myriad problems that underlie human existence are truly the things that are essential to being human. We are the only species who truly think, feel, worry, and have the capacity to exact change in the world, for better or for worse; and when we are faced with crisis, it can inundate and infiltrate every fiber of our minds, our hearts, and even our souls.
So it was, that I found myself completely transfixed by director Felix Van Groeningen’s heart-wrenching Beautiful Boy, which he co-wrote with Luke Davies. The riveting film stars the incomparable Steve Carell and the incredible young Timothée Chalamet, who if he isn’t already, is soon to become a household name. Based upon the memoir Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addition by David Sheff, and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines written by Sheff’s eldest son, Nic, Beautiful Boy traverses the enormously messy world of drug addiction and one family’s journey through the fray. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, Nic, David, and their entire family spiral into the insanity of drug-fueled chaos and turmoil, along with the ominous and ever-present uncertainty as to whether there ever will be a way out.
Following his divorce, in which David has primary physical custody, he helplessly watches his once bright-eyed, precocious, beautiful Nic transform before his eyes. Shocked, staggered, and emotionally spent, David cannot fathom how it could possibly have happened. Does anybody ever? Such that it is, no one comes into this world making the conscious decision to become an addict – genetics and environment both play a role, with a bit of happenstance for good (or rather, poor) measure.
Throughout the film, David is consumed, and we along with him. David tries anything to make things better for his son, but he quickly learns it’s not he who can alter Nic’s path, nor can he control Nic’s choices – Nic is acting of his own free will, despite the catastrophic horrors it continues to create for him and everyone he loves. It is a dynamic and dysfunctional system in which every family member has become entangled and dramatically altered – including his stepmother, Karen, his half-brother, Jasper, half-sister, Daisy, and his mother, Vicki, who lives in Los Angeles, miles from her son’s Northern California home. This is the ultimate in parenthood (and co-parenthood) being tested – facing the daily torture, New York Times writer David uses writing as a catharsis, while Vicki merely suffers from afar.
At its core, Beautiful Boy is about the devastation of addiction, but the messages go well beyond and into an exploration of family, love, and the looming risk of loss. It’s about when to offer support, how much, and the often-painful decision to let go. It’s a film in which most of us can identify somehow, seeing ourselves reflected in any one (or more) of these nuanced characters and their agonizing circumstances.
In his first foray in directing an English language film, Van Groeningen uses a non-linear presentation which speaks to life itself – one could imagine David’s life constantly flashing before his eyes, in his yearning for simpler times, mulling over missed signs, and feeling the overwhelming guilt and frustration as he ruminates about challenges he and Nic continue to face. Van Groeningen could not have asked for a more talented cast, whom he directed with incredible sensitivity and finesse. No stranger to the screen, Carell as David is phenomenal; his engulfing pain is palpable, even searing. Alongside co-star Chalamet, the two Oscar-worthy heavyweights navigate the choppy waters of the crushing tale like surfers facing insurmountable ocean waves. Chalamet’s raw performance is mesmerizing – his transformation from outgoing, creative, loving son to meth-using and heroin-shooting, thieving, lying addict wrecks you to your core.
Maura Tierney as Karen is riveting as the devoted wife and stepmother, who somehow manages to stay strong and balanced when tested beyond her limits. Amy Ryan as Vicki is anguished, agonized, and mostly alone in her grief. Both women’s stories unearth different hues of fracture and frustration, burden and blame. The former, one who is often left on the sidelines to keep life normal and moving for the couple’s two other children, bears a grief which is mostly unaided and unsupported; and the latter, one who is stranded both by physical distance and the same feelings of parental helplessness that David carries.
Like a moth to a flame, I’m drawn toward the complexities of life, even when what I see, hear, and feel touches me so intensely, it hurts. Beautiful Boy is one such example – a compelling, critical, and altogether relevant story which ultimately one hopes will open dialogue about addiction as well as other issues which can have cataclysmic outcomes if not addressed.
Whether art imitates life (or life imitates art), the fact is that there is nothing more engaging and powerful than a true-life story. Hence, just about every film out there, with the exception of those heralding a zombie apocalypse, either state they were based on a true-life story or are inspired by real events; the latter disclosure allowing more wiggle room for fiction-based elements as well as avoidance of potential copyright issues.
Amazon’s Beautiful Boy, or should I say “Golden Boy” since it is already up for a Golden Globe, is a riveting exploration of the downward spiral of drug addiction. But if it were only about that, then it would just a modern take on Less Than Zero. But the film is so much more than the pitfalls of drug addiction – it is in fact a seamless integration of the direct effect of drug addiction on a father-son relationship and the collateral damage that results to other members of the family. Perhaps this seamless integration is due, at least in part, to the fact that the film is based on two biographical memoirs: Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, by David Sheff; and Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines, by Nic Sheff. This two-sided glimpse behind the curtain allows us to see both sides of the issues: from an agonized, loving parent juxtaposed against an adolescent who made critical, life-altering mistakes and is then caught up in a web of his own making.
Of course, the brilliant acting by Steve Carell (David Sheff) and Timothée Chalamet (Nic Sheff) also had a great deal to do with the verisimilitude of the film, as did the wonderful direction by Felix Van Groeningen, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Luke Davies. Of course, the authenticity of the film was further underscored by the incredible supporting performances of Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan as stepmother, Karen, and mother, Vicki, respectively.
Beautiful Boy is one of those films that haunts you long after you’ve seen it. As a reviewer, it would seem impossible to get so caught up in a drama that you could forget that the lead actor is Steve Carell, probably best known for his comedic chops; but this is just that sort of exceptional film that will go on to garner kudos and awards. It is within the parameters of those rare experiences where reality is suspended and for two hours, you are not audience members, but voyeurs or perhaps worse, peeping toms, surreptitiously spying on friends or neighbors – because of course, no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors.
I found that there was definitely a non-US feel to the shooting, scenes, and camera angles; one can attribute this to Belgian director Van Groeningen’s first English-speaking film.
Beautiful Boy, despite its serious and catastrophic themes, is a beautiful film which must be experienced.