By Karen Gordon
The film is based on two complementary autobigraphical books David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through his Son’s Addiction and his son Nic Sheff’s Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.
Chalamet plays Nic, the sweet, talented 18-year-old son of journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell). They live in a lovely home in California, with David’s second wife Karen (Maura Tierney) and their two little children.
On the surface, it’s a picture-postcard life. To his father, Nic is a gentle, loving son, with a promising future, and who now heading off to college to fulfill all of that promise. What David doesn’t know is that Nic has been blithely playing around with drugs, and that an addiction to crystal meth has insidiously taken hold.
Soon Nic’s problem is out in the open, and David rushes to take the logical steps to help his son. But this is a battle without rules, and Nic’s addiction is a formidable foe, deeply entrenched.
The film is co-written and directed by Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen, who keeps the tone quiet and intimate. This is both the good news and the bad news.
We get a close-up portrait of an intelligent, loving couple trying their best to work their way through a problem that seems to defeat them, no matter which route they try to help their son. The grinding, earnest approach gives the movie a sense of reality, but it also stalls the emotional arc of the film, and makes it, at times, flat and a little predictable.
What lifts it above this narrative drag are the performances, in particular Chalamet’s. If there were any lingering speculation that his Oscar-nominated performance in Call Me By Your Name might have been a fluke, then this performance should put an end to that.
Chalamet proves himself to be an outrageously talented actor, seemingly fearless in his ability to inhabit the skin of characters who are not always easy to like.
From the beginning Nic is, like his father, quiet, watchful and quite loving towards his family. But under the soft surface, there’s a hard edge. Like many people secretly coping with addictive tendencies, he’s elusive and withholding. This ironically makes him more intriguing and attractive to some people around him. But it’s smoke and mirrors.
As the addiction takes hold, there are times when Nic simply loses the ability to fight. That’s where the movie is most effective. Not every addict has the internal strength to get clean and sober. For some, the addiction is too big and even contemplating sobriety becomes a battle of wills between the addict and their substance of choice.
Nic fights a terrifying battle with his addiction, and he doesn’t always win, to his shame and frustration. He’s an addict, paradoxically both in love with, and repulsed by, his own tendencies and actions. Chalamet conveys all of the necessary contradictory emotions at once. It’s bravura work.
Beautiful Boy. Directed and co-written by Felix van Groeningen. Starring Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney. Opens wide Friday, October 19.