Beautiful Boy - Review

Excellent performances are spoiled by overwrought writing and unchanging cinematography.

Watching someone go through addiction is hard. Watching it and knowing there’s nothing you can do is a whole other hardship, and it’s the center of the film adaptation of David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy. The story about a father watching his son become addicted to meth is rife with emotional potential, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good without Steve Carell and Timotheé Chalamet. These actors has seen a surprise turn toward dramatic roles in the last years, Steve Carell showing a certain level of dramatic potential. It started with Foxcatcher, and since his near-Academy Award win in 2015 he has made a real effort to change his style. In many ways, this is the role he was meant to play. A passionate and normal father who wants the best for his struggling son, but like most men, never gets it exactly right. Timotheé Chalamet is no stranger to difficult scripts, but he’s never had to play someone so unlikable. His immense talent is on full display in Beautiful Boy, even though it doesn’t fit him as snuggly as Call Me By Your Name or Lady Bird.

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Things don’t stay calm for very long. Very quickly, we realize that the once sturdy father-son relationship between Nic and David Sheff is fraying. It starts with a simple conversation about marijuana, one of the only light scenes in the film, but like most aspects of Beautiful Boy, it turns darker as time goes on. The father-son relationship is heavily examined, but dialogue leaves something to be desired. Aside from a few emotional-breakdown scenes that scream Oscars, most conversations are simple, understated, or clunky. I was never pulled out of the experience, but scenes in which Nic returns home while addicted are some of the sloppiest of the film. The writing seems to crack under the pressure of such a difficult subject, instead relying more on David’s story to guide the film. Steve Carell does everything he can, but the role is a difficult one. There’s nothing David can do except watch, and accept that there’s nothing he can do for his son.

Needless to say the film is sad despite its overwrought writing. It packs in too much, then too little. Director Felix Van Groeningen is obsessed with the natural look of the Sheff’s San Francisco home, as he uses dozens of shots that put characters between trees and over the sun. It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t become dynamic as the tone of the film begins to change. It seems like a missed opportunity not to reflect the state of mind of the characters in the cinematography, and instead comes across like the director just wanted some nice shots.

The clunky writing and unfortunately static cinematography are holding back a film that desperately wants to succeed. The two leads are excellent, although they can’t help but be hindered by the cliche script. Beautiful Boy is very affecting, and will likely cause you to re-evaluate your stance on drug use, but it’s nothing new for cinema, and in a year of memorable originality, its plainness sticks out.