With films about addiction, we often feel like we know what’s coming. As David Sims put it in The Atlantic, audiences mostly anticipate "a neat, three-act structure: First comes substance abuse, then rock bottom, then recovery." Euphoric highs, squalid lows, then, eventually, some kind of redemption.
Beautiful Boy, the first English-language feature by Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen, offers little in the way of these expectations. Chronicling the real-life experiences of father and son, David and Nic Sheff (and based on the accounts given in their respective memoirs, Beautiful Boy and Tweak), the film depicts Nic's addiction to crystal meth and other drugs with a sensitive but stubborn methodicalness. Van Groeningen shows us relapse after relapse, focusing not on Nic's motivations, but on the corrosive effect his drug use has on his family, and in particular his father.
Steve Carell is convincing as David Sheff, a writer and dad-of-three preoccupied by the disease holding his eldest child in its grip. Carell moves with David's emotional state capably – he's angry, then addled, then sadly resigned – though in more heightened scenes he's harder to take seriously (the Michael Scott, regrettably in this context, jumps out). However, the rapport with his co-star Timothée Chalamet, who plays Nic, is more satisfying.
The father and son relationship is presented in flashbacks (a storytelling device that attempts to echo the disorder of Nic's brain, but which often feels confusing; more than once I was left wondering when a particular scene was supposed to have occurred). There's the time they go surfing and Nic looks to be lost, only to emerge riding a huge wave; the time Nic screams along to Nirvana in his dad's car; the time he asks his dad to smoke weed with him. All this lays an emotional foundation for the loss David feels after the meth-induced breakdown of their bond, and makes up for the sometimes flimsy-feeling characters, defined almost entirely by their relationship to Nic's addiction.
Both lead actors, however, give layered performances, and are best in the thick of their characters' feelings. Chalamet, for all the physicality of his role, is gutting shot in closeup immediately after a relapse at a university girlfriend's family home, as guilt, regret and chemical relaxation all flit across his face. And as David accuses Nic of taking a small amount of money from his kid brother, Carell's reading of the line "Did you take his eight dollars?" straddles a tightrope of hurt, confusion and surprise, as this father begins to realise the extent of his son's problem.
It's in centring emotionality that Beautiful Boy most obviously attempts to dissemble the typical addiction movie arc. Admirably, it does not sensationalise, instead using the relatability of family bonds to highlight the heartbreak of addiction. Its de facto mantra, "relapse is part of recovery", got a laugh at the screening I attended the first time a character said it, but as it gradually revealed itself as one of the central messages of the film, the laughter stopped. A large part of this film's purpose, it seems, is to educate.
Indeed, while on the press circuit for the film, Carell and Chalamet have been very clear that in making Beautiful Boy they were keen to shine a light on addiction, and in particular the opioid crisis in the USA. In an appearance on US chat show The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Chalamet interrupted his otherwise light-hearted interview to talk about what the film wants to achieve. "A lot of people, and a lot of young people, are going through an addiction crisis in this country right now, and for whatever reason there's a bit of trepidation to talk about it. And that's what this movie hopes to address in some ways," he said, adding that "addiction does not have a recognisable face. This affects everyone. There shouldn't be a moral taboo around it, there shouldn't be a shame. That’s how we get past it, that’s how we deal with it."
Beautiful Boy wants to reframe addiction narratives – to reshape them into something closer to reality, so that they may contribute positively to the real world conversation on the topic. Speaking to Sam Lansky for TIME, Chalamet described the process of making the movie as "just scene after scene where we tried to do it as diligently as possible".
While a commendable aim, there are some issues – for instance, the jarring privilege that looms over the film, over the Sheffs' peaceful, Boden catalogue existence, over the rustic Bay Area bungalow where they live. The comfort of the family's life means that each time Nic is hospitalised, there is money to pay for his treatment, and his rehab stays are not financially prohibited. Therefore, as Joshua Rivera points out for GQ, the film "seems wholly uninterested in examining a reality wherein, were David Sheff not a nice white journalist of some means, the kind of help [Nic would] get might be totally different – if not nonexistent". If Beautiful Boy wanted to meaningfully add to the discussion around addiction in the US and beyond, as its stars say it does (and as the captioning at the end of the film citing America's drug crisis attests), it would have expanded its scope beyond the white, economically secure perspective of its source material.
Structurally, there are also issues. Ultimately, the film suffers a fate also described in the original 2008 New York Times review of the Sheffs' memoirs, which acknowledges that "the heartbreaking circle game of addiction can fetter a writer's sense of what to include and, more important, when to stop". Nic's relapses spiral around the film, punctuating it, descending by the end into the most vicious and inevitable of cycles. You leave a Beautiful Boy screening, then, feeling pummelled by its message, and while that message is a worthy, important, crucial one that Chalamet and Carell deliver with care, there’s a feeling that Van Groeningen too wasn’t sure where to stop. Given the film's impulse to teach, its relentlessness is certainly important, but it's possible that broader, wider-lensed strokes might have been more effective.