At the tender age of 22, Timothée Chalamet has the world at his feet. His confident turn in Call Me by Your Name launched a thousand Twitter fan accounts and earned him an Academy Award nomination. Such success so young could be a poisoned chalice – how do you follow up a performance as remarkable as that? The short answer, judging by Chalamet’s latest: you head in the opposite direction.
Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy, based on the twin memoirs of David Sheff and his son Nic, is a million miles from tender teen romance on the sun- dappled piazzas of Crema. Nic (Chalamet) is a meth addict, and he spirals away from his supportive family and further towards his reliance on drugs and alcohol. His journalist father David (Steve Carell) makes sincere attempts to understand his son’s disease, but risks pushing him further away in the process as he tries to remain supportive while also nudging Nic towards rehabilitation.
David’s desire to understand his son’s addiction through factual, journalistic research sees him turn to the familiar in search of the unknown. At the same time, the shame of being dependent on drugs haunts Nic in tandem with his desire for another fix. Chalamet flits between aching vulnerability and frustrated mania, a whirlwind of energy and emotion that proves his star turn in 2017 was no fluke.
An early confrontation between Carell and Chalamet in a diner demonstrates the latter’s ability to capture fragility without straying into manipulative sentimentality, but he’s not afraid to show Nic’s destructive nature either, as he steals from his family in order to fund his addiction. It’s as easy to root for Nic as it is to become frustrated with his relapse-recovery cycle.
Meanwhile, Carrel proves the perfect foil, stoic as he fights his own feelings of failure in being unable to help his son see that life is worth more than what’s offered by the tip of a needle. Van Groeningen offers a delicately non-judgemental insight into the specific hell that is meth addiction, but is also concerned with providing an authentic family portrait, examining the intricacies of father-son relationships and how familial expectations can shape a child’s development.
He appears less interested in the causes of addiction than its devastating effects, particularly on Nic’s immediate family, including his half-siblings, who idolise their troubled older brother. As Nic chases his next high, his family chase the version of him they knew before the drugs, and struggle with the realisation that simply loving a person may not be enough to save their life.
Although the narrative structure itself is a little shaky and repetitive, when viewed as a character study Beautiful Boy becomes a triumph of performance and emotional nuance. Grainy flashbacks show the Sheff family in happier times, when seemingly infinite possibilities stretched out ahead of them. It’s the human cost of addiction which really hits home, and in offering no easy answers or trite sentiments, Beautiful Boy does justice to both the people fighting this affliction, and those doing everything in their power to help.