Review: Beautiful Boy follows the same old addiction film template

Steve Carell-Timothée Chalamet film about a father trying to understand his son’s struggles tries way too hard to be authentic, pure and true

BEAUTIFUL BOY (Felix Van Groeningen). 120 minutes. Opens Friday (October 19). See listing. Rating: NN

Beautiful Boy is the kind of movie where a father and a son hold each other close and solemnly whisper “Everything” to one another. It’s meant to be a profound gesture of love, but it just seems pretentious. Eventually we learn why they do that and what it means, and we wonder why the son, at least, hasn’t outgrown it.

Steve Carell plays the father, the journalist David Sheff Timothée Chalamet is his son Nic, who struggled with drug addiction for most of his teens and early 20s. Flashing back and forth over most of Nic’s life, Beautiful Boy watches David tries to help him, and then to understand him and finally to make peace with the way their lives have diverged.

This is a movie that tries very, very hard to be authentic and pure and true, and that’s the problem: it won’t stop trying. You can feel the calculation in every camera setup where the actors face each other in contrived stillness, in every soundtrack cut that instructs us how to feel about a given moment.

Although it’s based on both David and Nic’s memoirs, Beautiful Boy follows exactly the same template as every other film about a family dealing with addiction. Parents offer advice and understanding as the kid pushes them away, cycling through rehab and relapse and putting everyone through hell. You know how it goes. We’ve literally seen this movie before.

This is the first English venture for Felix Van Groeningen, whose Belgian features The Misfortunates and The Broken Circle Breakdown are masterful, richly emotional works. Here, it’s as if he’s working from a rigid blueprint he can’t quite understand. The actors do their level best to inhabit each moment fully, though certain pairings are weirdly distracting. 

It’s strange to see Carell and Amy Ryan as brittle divorcées given their much goofier history on The Office, and jarring to see Ryan and her Wire co-star Andre Royo sitting together at an AA meeting. Is Van Groeningen is nodding to their pop-culture precedents, or does he not understand the connections we’re making? 

Based on the way he plasters Perry Como’s cover of Sunrise, Sunset over a montage of Carell thinking about the child he tried to raise, I’m thinking it’s probably the second thing.

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