I confess, I do not know much about addiction. The little I do know comes mostly from movies and the excellent A&E docu-series Intervention, which is, itself, quite addictive. What I have learned from watching Intervention is to be grateful that addiction hasn’t touched my family or anyone I love to such an extent to be life-threatening and that the horrors of it are sometimes beyond comprehension. From the ripple effect it causes to the complicated roller-coaster road to recovery, addiction affects everyone differently, yet, at the same time, contains enough common threads to make every addiction story relatable to anyone who has been touched by the disease, which is probably why addiction, like love, lends itself so well to dramatic storytelling. There are a million stories to tell, and they are all dramatic, heartbreaking and, hopefully, redeeming. That’s what good drama should be.
Beautiful Boy is a new movie about addiction. And it is dramatic and heartbreaking. But it is also strangely detached. Instead of being wholly involved in the narrative, the audience is more a witness to it. Like the lookie-loos on the freeway who just can’t stop looking at an accident, I found myself incredibly curious, but from a distance. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t affected by it, I just wasn’t shattered by it, which is probably a good thing. Director and co-screenwriter Felix van Groeningen and his co-screenwriter Luke Davies (based on the books “Beautiful Boy” and “Tweak” by David and Nic Sheff) do a really great job at telling the true story of one family’s battle with addiction while avoiding pitfalls of over-sentimentality, melodrama and melancholia, three elements that have doomed more than one addiction tale. Instead, Beautiful Boy take a matter-of-fact and practical approach to its subject, perhaps reducing the emotional effect, but allowing the head and heart to have a clear-eyed vision of what is happening to this family. This thoughtful and logical approach to such an emotional subject allowed me to engage more with the “what would you do if this were your child” part of the story, which, in my mind, is the most emotionally devastating of all.
Let’s not overlook the fact that this movie is a perfect example of what industry insiders call “Oscar bait.” It’s a low-budget movie with a serious and important subject that usually features a famous actor or actress playing a character who must battle some sort of disease, bigotry or event that forces them to find a strength they never knew they had. A classic example of an Oscar bait movie would be 2014’s Still Alice, a little-seen movie about the effects of early-onset Alzheimer’s that earned Julianne Moore her long-overdue Oscar for Best Actress. Again, that’s not to say the movie—and her performance—weren’t completely deserving of all the accolades, it’s just the more cynical viewer might question the motives (and timing) of the filmmakers.
Then again, there are movies that are small and serious that feature big name stars that get made not to win awards, but because everyone involved really felt like there was an important story to tell and, maybe even more important, that there are great roles the actors were dying to play. Steve Carell is an A-list comedy star who has conquered movies (40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman and Despicable Me) and television (The Office) and is now looking to follow Tom Hanks and Robin Williams in making the transition from successful comic actor to successful dramatic one. Carell started transitioning towards a legit non-comic career with a string of dramatic comedies, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Little Miss Sunshine, Dan in Real Life and The Way Way Back. But, in 2015, he jumped into the dramatic deep end with a wholly serious performance in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. People finally took notice of Carell as an actor instead of a comedian. Which brings us to Beautiful Boy. Let’s put it this way: Oscar bait only works if you are a performer who legitimately is deserving to be considered for the industry’s highest honor. The fact that Steve Carell has finally worked his way into that position is in itself an achievement. And if you don’t believe the guy can really act, you’ll change your mind after this movie. He may not win an Oscar or even be nominated, but he should be in the conversation.
Carell’s performance is enhanced by the partner he gets to share most of his screen time with, Timothee Chalamet, who first wowed critics last year in Call Me By Your Name, which won him a Best Actor nomination at the tender age of 23. Chalamet is mesmerizing here as Nic Sheff, a young man who seemingly has it all before his life falls into the black hole of addiction. Beautiful Boy doesn’t spend time addressing the whys of Nic’s addition, but instead focuses on the relationship he has with his father David (Carell) and how the disease strains and nearly breaks a bond that was so strong. David feels helpless as he watches his son spiral into oblivion and is desperate to do anything to help save him, but addiction is a foe that only the addict can conquer, so David is left to stand metaphorically on the shore while his son battles the waves, trying not to drown. This dynamic is so movingly conveyed by both actors—the love these characters have for each other is only matched by their mutual anguish and hopelessness. Chalamet’s is definitely the flashier role here—and the more likely recipient of any awards love—and he makes the most of every emotional moment, finding a depth that seems well beyond his years, but don’t sleep on Steve Carell, who’s quiet desperation will break your heart.
Beautiful Boy doesn’t break any new ground here and may be a little too boring for those who are looking for an exciting, complicated story with lots of flashy scenery-chewing, but the understatedly moving performances are so worth it. It may be Oscar bait, but I took it—hook, line and sinker.