There is no doubt that a parent’s worst nightmare is having to witness a child sink deep into the abyss of illness, in particular when it is an addiction that is tearing them into pieces. With this cluster of emotions in mind, Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen insightfully dissects in Beautiful Boy the anatomy of a drug addiction. The melodrama is based on a true story and adapted from the memoirs of father and son, David and Nic Sheff respectively and on both of their experiences facing the disease whilst on opposite sides of a spectrum. It is David’s perspective (Steve Carrell) that forms the basis of the film as he observes, impotent, the ravages of crystal meth on his ‘sweet green-eyed boy’ Nic (Timothée Chalamet).
At 17-years-old, Nic’s timeline is fractured in various places with fragments which never quite come together and never utterly patch up. Flashbacks show him at different stages of his youth as an ordinary kid and a brilliant soul. It is in the opening scene, that we begin to perceive the despair engulfing his dad, David as he seeks for help. Nic bears no warning signs, no evidence of the storm unleashed thereafter when Beautiful Boy paints the portrait of a happy and healthy reconstituted family. But the clouds have burst and, ’who is Nic now’? David doesn’t know. This absence of past incriminating trauma gives a new dimension and force to the film, focusing solely and almost clinically on the ‘how‘ and not the ‘why’. For David, it is a heartbreak to abruptly realise that the extent of his protection has reached its limit. In that sense, Beautiful Boy is essentially dealing with the strenuous and daunting aspects of parenting. A scene directly extracted from a memory sees David swimming in the ocean, frantically calling Nic’s name after losing sight of him in the waves. The sudden awareness that Nic might fade forever, both his presence and the connection they once shared disappearing, slowly creeps in and hits hard. It is no coincidence that the melancholic cinematography relies on the omnipresent yet discreet colour blue as it is crucial to the story. It is in particular in front of the turquoise of the San Francisco bay that Nic confronts his cravings. Although ashore, he is undeniably lost at sea and never ceases to suffocate, always fighting to keep is head above the surface when an invisible hand pushes him underneath the water. As the story evolves, we are rapidly drowning with him and anxiously awaiting the next breath of fresh air to come and fill our lungs.
Timothée Chalamet gives his entire self to Nic’s character, eyes and tight smiles speaking a quiet language as soon as he appears on screen. His role as young and carefree Elio in the award-winning Call Me By Your Name pushed Chalamet into the spotlight, revealing him to the public as one of the most gifted actors of his generation. But slipping into the skin of Nic is a 180 degree turn. While Elio Perlman doesn’t hesitate to verbalise his undisclosed desires, Nic Sheff is much more secluded and guarded. Chalamet’s face is transfixed in Nic’s, as he carries a tender vulnerability stating that all trace of innocence is long gone. And in Steve Carrell’s hands, the interactions between Nic and David are magnified. The duo form gains in credibility and honesty every time they are face to face thanks to an evident artistic compatibility.
However, despite displaying the dynamic of strong family bonds (especially between Nic and his younger siblings), Beautiful Boy has the disadvantage of polishing its female characters in the persons of Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney as Nic’s mother and stepmother. At times, it is even difficult to seize their inner emotions due to their underdeveloped storylines.
Beautiful Boy sticks to the authenticity of David and Nic Sheff’s real lives. Thereby, the loop established in the film might seem too repetitive after some time but rightfully serves the point Van Groeningen wants to make. Following Nic through the ups and downs of recovery and relapse reflects on the educational aim. There is a clear will to do right by those in the know and not sugarcoat the seriousness of the issue raised, in order to allow a narrative as close to reality and as true to the memoirs as possible. Beautiful Boy asks all along the critical question, one that knows no preconceived or exact answers to: how to save a life? At the center of the film are the chronicles of a father on a rescue mission led by his heart. And in all his agony, David Sheff gradually comes to term with the dreadful outcome. He understands that to save his beautiful boy, he might have to pay an unbearable price: everything.
by Marie-Célia Cannenpasse
Marie-Célia is from a French Caribbean island, and currently studying applied foreign languages at Sorbonne University in Paris, whilst taking filmmaking courses online. She enjoys listening to soundtracks curled up under a comfy duvet on rainy days, gushing about Kate Winslet or Christian Bale on a daily basis, and crying over the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. Her favourite films include Gone with the wind, Super 8, Call me by your name and The Prestige. You can find her on Twittter @MCeliaCR and on letterboxd too @MCeliaCR.