At its best, “Beautiful Boy” is a heartbreaking paternal detective story, with David Sheff (Steve Carell) undergoing a painful cycle of fear and resentment as he tries to help with his college-aged son Nic (Timothée Chalamet) overcome a debilitating drug addiction. At its worst, this somber drama about family estrangement wallows in grief with a borderline sadistic intensity. With lesser performances, it would crumble under the manipulative weight of unearned gravitas, but these two actors transcend the material at every turn. Chalamet, a heartthrob unafraid to tackle unglamorous material, so embodies the tragic struggles of a drug-addled young man it’s a wonder he made it through the production, while Carell’s melancholic eyes absorb every detail. It’s a haunting two-hander that allows their talent to tower over everything else.
Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen knows this breed of feel-bad cinema all too well. Prior to this English-language debut, his Oscar-nominated “The Broken Circle Breakdown” explored the turmoil of a musical couple who contend with a sudden illness that destroys their cozy existence. But while that movie charged into darker territory in its second half, “Beautiful Boy” wastes no time establishing its grim context. In the very first shot, David gazes at a doctor and describes his son’s challenges with crystal meth, then states the two questions that sit at the center of every scene to come: “What is this doing to him, and what can I do to help him?”
That obvious framing device speaks to the impulses of a movie that embraces the didactic approach. Based on the non-fiction memoir co-written by the real-life Sheffs about Nic’s rocky road to recovery — he’s been sober eight years — “Beautiful Boy” never veers off its single, focused path. However, the screenplay (credited to the director and Luke Davies, the Oscar-nominated “Lion” screenwriter who wrote a novel based on his own addiction, “Candy”) injects some structural trickery to evoke the challenges David faces in reckoning his warm relationship to his son during his childhood to the troubled creature now grappling to survive. Despite the non-linear timeline, the narrative comes into sharp focus early on: David, a good-natured divorcee and successful journalist who maintained a healthy relationship with his son until he went to college, can’t figure out how Nic wound up on such an intense downward spiral. In the quest for answers, he turns to his vocation, hitting the streets and gathering sources to arrive at a greater understanding of the daunting road ahead.
The movie picks through virtually every angle of this process. David attempts to keep supporting his son while his second wife (Maura Tierney) grows increasingly concerned about their own young children; meanwhile, David tries to keep his ex-wife Vicki (an underutilized Amy Ryan, reuniting with Carell for the first time since their days on “The Office”) at bay. At times, the movie drifts to Nic’s dreary exploits around California, in several cases skirting death. Van Groeningen maintains such a delicate touch that he avoids overplaying Nic’s continuing challenges, and even manages to illustrate — in one prolonged sequence where Nic shoots up with a new girlfriend — how much the guy derives a fleeting contentment whenever he gets high.
In these scenes and others that find him lashing out at his astonished father, Chalamet once again illustrates an uncanny ability to merge with whatever the material demands of him. A far cry from the sexually adventurous teen of “Call Me By Your Name” or the obnoxious boyfriend of “Lady Bird,” he buries his hunky features under a messy mop of hair and a malleable expression. His face is a Roschach test of emotions, melting from grimace to eerie smirk as the character contends with the invisible processes of a shattered brain.
As the movie cycles through various stages of addiction, recovery, and relapse, it often falls into an instructive mode. While it’s sure to offer assistance to some households that face the same challenge (and provide a mirror for others who have survived the experience), as cinema experienced outside those subject variables, it’s so straightforward that it could continue indefinitely as an ongoing cycle. Nevertheless, David’s uncertainties about his ability to support his son create an underlying suspense as the relapses keep piling up.
Van Groeningen’s ability to unite the past and present in the movie’s constant flashback structure often creates the feeling of a tone poem. There are some questionable montages — including a blunt sequence set to a cover of “Sunrise, Sunset” — that pad out the two-hour running time as the movie hits the same mournful note.
However, whenever the pair confront each other, “Beautiful Boy” snaps into focus. In the whopper of an ending, “Beautiful Boy” finds a natural conclusion while implying that these circumstances may continue for an eternity. Despite the success of the book that the father-son pair wrote together, Van Groeningen resists the possibility of a happy ending. It might be an actor’s showcase, but by the time the credits roll, the struggle is real.
“Beautiful Boy” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon Studios releases it on October 12.