Monday, 28 January 2019

Film Review - Beautiful Boy (15)

This isn't us. This is not who we are.

It was Steve Carell, not Timothee Chalamet, who got me sobbing at Beautiful Boy. That's not to say young Tim isn't excellent in this drug addiction drama - he absolutely is. (If you've seen Call Me By Your Name you already know how well this lad can act.) But Felix van Groeningen's film is doing something that the Trainspotting films only hinted at and that the terrifying Requiem for a Dream bypassed altogether. It's focusing as much on the addict's family as the user himself. The results are more powerful and affecting than anything I'd expected going in.
Beautiful Boy is based on memoirs written by David and Nic Sheff, a father and son who lived the devastating reality of what Carell and Chalamet portray on screen. The movie begins with the dad, a successful journalist, researching the effects of crystal methamphetamine. Flashing back a year we witness his discovery that his teen son has been experimenting with multiple drugs, falling prey to crystal meth in particular. David has brought up Nic largely on his own, before remarrying and starting a family with a new partner Karen (Maura Tierney). But the bond between him and his son, although intensely close, is now in danger of being destroyed by Nic's drug-related sickness and its grim effects.
This film does a quite remarkable job of conveying happiness shattered by addiction. Its San Fransisco locations take on a dreamlike quality at points - sun-dappled and gorgeous, with step-mom Karen's colourful artwork decking trees. It only serves, however, as a contrast with the darkness into which Nic is dragging his family. The same is true of the father/son relationship. The strength of their connection is established swiftly and touchingly, but acts as a painful reminder of all they've shared and lost. Then there's the fragmented quality of the narrative - jolting around in time, with two other actors playing younger versions of Nic. His is not the only broken life, it suggests, with his dad and others sucked into the disorienting cycle of drug-use, rehabilitation and relapse.   
Chalamet is formidably good here, both as the gregarious, loving son and gifted student we glimpse at points, and as the junkie shell he becomes - selfish, gaunt and self-hating. The performance is brilliantly nuanced and never played for effect. It simply is. Still for many it's Carell's character who will resonate. The father's bottled anguish as he tries to solve the conundrum of his son's addiction is gut-wrenching. He's disbelieving, angry and grief-stricken by turns, the torment underscored by a dark soundscape that draws you inexorably into the most hellish moments. An evocative soundtrack accompanies his desperate journey too - a bit obvious as devices go for some critics, but one that makes perfect sense given David Sheff's history in music journalism and how naturally certain songs would connect him to family memories. 
It's an actor's movie all round. Respect is additionally due to Amy Ryan as the estranged mother trying to reconnect with her child and for Tierney, who's heartbreaking in her own right - a tower of strength quietly holding things together, while that resolve is tested to its limit.
Beautiful Boy has sliced opinion in two, some labelling it preachy and others decrying its concern with middle-class white victimhood. Both criticisms are wildly shy of the mark. The film doesn't preach - it chronicles the son's stumbling progress and the dad's flailing attempts at understanding what the hell is going on. And as for the 'privilege' issue, that's the story's whole point. There's no family life so charmed that it can't be devastated by addiction - and when that happens, your privilege means zero. It's an unhappy thought, one brought vividly to life in this emotionally brutal but undeniably beautiful film.
Gut Reaction: Bodily contortions, gripping of chin/bridge of nose, tears - twice. Visceral experience throughout.

Memorable Moment: The toughest phone conversation a dad could have.  

Ed's Verdict: 9/10. When I say 'beautiful', I mean it. A paean to familial love, and pain when things go terribly wrong. If it weren't so tender, it wouldn't be so tragic.

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