Movies

From first steps to 12 steps

Steve Carell fathers an addict in 'Beautiful Boy'

America's opioid epidemic has had but one fringe benefit: to draw attention back to addiction, treatment and the hard (sometimes impossible) work of recovery. Amazon Studios' "Beautiful Boy"-- starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet as father and drug-addicted son -- makes a good case for itself as the addiction movie America needs right now.

Based on a pair of 2008 memoirs (David Scheff's "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction" and Nick Sheff's "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines"), Belgian filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen's English-language debut depicts and emblematizes the helplessness so many feel when it comes to addiction. After all, the topic remains as vexing as it is attractive to dramatists. The struggle of the addict has become so familiar that a straightforward account of addiction would seem doomed to cliche.

But screenwriters Luke Davies -- a former heroin addict and author/co-screenwriter of "Candy" -- and Van Groeningen take a largely matter-of-fact approach to the archetypes of the addict's journey. They are this drama's given circumstances, from which Carell and Chalamet movingly investigate the human toll within a father-son relationship. So if "Beautiful Boy" can offer little in the way of fresh insight as to the diseased logic of the addict, the attendant downward tailspin, and a parent's loving desperation, it instead takes an almost spiritual tact, offering a primal "you are not alone" catharsis for sufferers under the powerful grip of addiction or with a front-row seat to it.

As Nick Sheff, Chalamet falls from healthy upper-middle-class comfort to the torments of the damned, which also qualifies "Beautiful Boy" as a cautionary tale for the young and vulnerable, an upscale, sophisticated version of ye olde "Afterschool Special" (one that doesn't foolishly deny the appeal of drugs for pleasure, as an intensifier, as an escape from what Nick calls "stupid, all-day reality"). Three other actors play Nick from ages 4 to 12, in scenes establishing the loving bond dad David feels slipping away, but Chalamet gets the juicy material: the teenage disaffection that magnetically repels children from parents, the rush and crash of narcotics and the internal war of a young man who gradually comes to realize he wants out of an ever-deepening hole. "I understand why I do things," Nick laments. "It doesn't make me any different."

There's enough shame to go around, as journalist David flagellates himself for his son's choices and repeatedly fails to "save" his boy. "I don't know how to help him," David wails. "You can't," counters his wife Karen (Maura Tierney). Van Groeningen and Davies know well enough not to offer neat answers for why Nick starts taking drugs, why he relapses, and the like, and they avoid spinning David into the simplistic roles of a negligent parent or a saintly crusader (he frequently says the wrong thing, and instinct and raw emotion typically wrestle down his intellect). As much as anything else, "Beautiful Boy" observes a father learning the toughest lesson about loved ones -- that he must surrender the illusion of control.

Van Groeningen the director takes some missteps. In his desire to skew the film from today's mainstream conventions, "Beautiful Boy" becomes the sort where, to the point of absurdity, no one ever turns on the lights. Worse, Van Groneningen works against the film's clearheadedness by indulging schmaltzy, on-the-nose musical choices (take out Perry Como's cover of "Sunrise, Sunset" and Carell's breathy rendering of the titular John Lennon song, and the film gets immeasurably better). But these misdemeanors are far from fatal. Above all, "Beautiful Boy" lives in its performances: Tierney and Amy Ryan (as Nick's biological mom), Carell, and especially the searingly resonant Chalamet honorably embody the sadly familiar story of a family torn apart by addiction.

— Peter Canavese

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