David Sheff is one of those “involved” fathers who rarely existed, at least not in the movies, until the last generation or so. The kind of dad who vowed to be different from his own father, to avoid leaving the nuts-and-bolts (and the blood and the sweat and the tears) of child-rearing to mom, while he was out earning a living, or sitting in his favorite chair, reading the newspaper and nursing his after-dinner drink and saying, “Ask your mother,” to just about any question.
In the flashback sequences of Felix van Groeningen’s sensitive and lushly photographed and sometimes quite heartbreaking addiction tale “Beautiful Boy,” Steve Carell’s David is the primary parental figure in his son Nic’s life. Hugging him and holding him and nurturing him and encouraging him and eventually becoming his best friend.
Why, David even shares a joint and engages in big-time bonding with the teenage Nic (played at that point by Timothee Chalamet).
Cut to a few years later, when the college-age Nic has become a shadow of himself — an alarmingly thin, corpse-pale, jittery, angry, resentful, self-destructive, bitter young man prone to lashing out at anyone, including his father, who tries to help him.
Nic is an addict. He has tried anything and everything, but he’s hooked the hardest on crystal meth, perhaps the most lethal and most unshakable drug of all.
How did Nic get here? He grew up in a comfortable, upper-middle-class home in sun-dappled Marin County, where his journalist father and his painter mother (Maura Tierney) showered him with love and attention and encouraged him to pursue his love of writing. He’s smart and kind and handsome and charming, and would seem to have the world waiting at his doorstep.
So what happened? What was the event(s) that started Nic on this pitch-black path of addiction? “I don’t know, I don’t know,” says Nic — and while that’s no doubt true, it leads to a somewhat frustrating circle of events from a dramatic standpoint, as “Beautiful Boy” takes us through the seemingly endless and hellish cycle of addiction that threatens to end Nic’s young life and take down his family in the process.
We share David’s pain over Nic’s addiction and we empathize with his frustration and despair when it feels as if all hope is lost — but the sad thing is, we’ve seen this story many times before. It’s the fine writing and the heartfelt performances that elevate “Beautiful Boy” to something more than just another well-made cautionary tale.
Based on the best-selling twin memoirs from David Sheff and Nic Sheff and set mostly in the early 2000s, “Beautiful Boy” tells the story through David’s prism. The walls of David’s home office are filled with framed covers of his interviews for Playboy and Esquire and the New York Times with the likes of John Lennon and Steve Jobs. We occasionally see snippets of David in the conference room at Rolling Stone, discussing his next project.
As David’s oldest boy Nic falls deeper into addiction and often disappears from home for months at a time, David takes a journalist’s approach to investigating the drug epidemic as he tries to understand the dark allure of hardcore usage. (He even takes out a powder of some kind at one point and snorts it, resulting in an unfortunate scene that looks like it’s from a 1970s film, with David acting the fool while jamming to his record collection.)
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Carell continues his streak of well-crafted, effective film performances as he slips seamlessly into the role of the bearded, intelligent, perhaps too forgiving dutiful father. Maura Tierney is outstanding as Nic’s stepmother, who loves him dearly but will not allow his downward spiral to harm her two young children or destroy her marriage.
Chalamet follows his star-making turns in “Lady Bird,” “Hostiles” and “Call Me by Your Name” with another blazingly strong performance as Nic, a shining star in the making who is turning into a burnt-out shell of a human being day by day, relapse after relapse.
I’ve seen Chalamet compared to a young Brando, but to me his work is more reminiscent of James Dean — electric and forceful and screen-grabbing, but stunningly vulnerable and real. When Nic is feeling healthy and he’s running through a sprinkler in the family yard on a perfect afternoon, with his adoring little siblings following him like puppies and giggling with pure joy, his father looks at him as if the boy is a god on Earth. When Nic is a skeletal, nearly invisible, dead-eyed shadow on the verge of slipping away forever, his father is at a loss to as to how to help his once beautiful boy.
Chalamet is asked to hit some big notes in this performance, but we never see him acting. That’s true greatness in the making.
Amazon Studios presents a film directed by Felix van Groeningen and written by Luke Davies and van Groeningen. Rated R (for drug content throughout, language, and brief sexual material). Running time: 112 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.