The devastation of drug addiction is passionately acted and masterfully told in BEAUTIFUL BOY, a film that is savagely tender in mood and execution. Based on the memoir of the same name by Bay Area journalist David Sheff (played by Steve Carrell), and Tweaked, the companion memoir by Sheff’s son, Nic ( played by Timothée Chalamet), it recounts the painful road to the tough love that might just have saved Nic’s life when he seemed doomed by his meth amphetamine addiction.
Told with flashbacks to Nic’s childhood annotating the story of David’s desperate struggle to save his son, BEAUTIFUL BOY takes a contemplative tone as it never lets us forget who Nic was, and, beneath the brain and nerve damage, still is, even at his worst moments. It’s why the small moments of family harmony are so vivid, and the sight of Nic, on the cusp of a bright future as he leaves his adolescence, and seemingly on the road to recovery, putting a needle in his arm is like a knife to the heart. And the utter anguish David experiences when he surrenders to the realization that his instincts to stand by his son will not save him, are even sharper.
Beginning with David’s search for the clinical answers from a rehab specialist (Timothy Hutton), and taking us step-by-step through Nic’s honest attempts to kick his habit, the spectre of death is always present. Father and son, reaching out over an impossible divide, have conversations that reveal the bond between them even as the words become bitter and angry, with a subtext is palpably full of grief and regret.
Carrell has never been better as a good man trying to use his intellect to understand what is happening to his son as a
way to cope with the repeated beatings that his heart takes when Nic relapses. The clinical answers to what happens with meth addiction lay out the odds and the obstacles to recovery, but it’s a conversation David has with a similarly addicted street waif, over what may be the first food she’s had in days, that finally brings home to him, and us, the scope of the problem. Chalamet has the same charisma he brought to CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, the same sweetness as Nic tries to get his life on track with every intention of succeeding, only to be done in by the sight of a bottle prescription drugs at a friend’s house. The hesitation speaks to those good intentions, the snapping open of the lid, to the addiction over which he has no control.
This is not a formula film. The strains on David’s marriage to second wife Karen (Maura Tierney) don’t culminate in ultimatums and anger. The conversations between David and his first wife and Nic’s mother (Amy Ryan) as they sort through their feelings never devolves into recriminations about a marriage gone wrong. These are all people who, in one way or another, are lost without a clear answer about what to do. When tears flow, as often as not, it’s not a tantrum, nor a crying jag, though a cell phone is flung with an echoing profanity at one point. The norm is rather the silent sliding of a tear as someone realizes the hopelessness of the situation. As for why Nic tried drugs, there are no pat answers about a bad childhood (he didn’t have one), or peer pressure (none seen), or a bleak future (he’s a talented, smart upper-middle class kid aware of his gifts). The answer, if there is one, is more troubling. It lies in the same vague sense of alienation almost every teenager goes through, the need for a heightened reality and the shortcut a hit of something controlled can give with an instant gratification.
BEAUTIFUL BOY is a dour film, but one that never preaches or blames. It gives us fine people doing their best in a situation for which science has no answer. We walk away sobered by a monologue delivered by LisaGay Hamilton in a monologue that deserves an Oscar nomination for the impact it makes in only a handful of minutes on screen, that show the outcome of all those clinical facts so meticulously woven into the narrative. Finally we are left wondering why science is only identifying how brains fry on drugs, not finding a way to effectively treat it. And why sliding a credit card over a desk to pay for rehab that may or may not work is still remains the only recourse.