David Scheff (Steve Carell) asks an expert in the field of drug-addiction about his son, “I wonder who he is?”. Beautiful Boy, directed by Felix Van Groeningen, is a personal and powerful observation of a young man struggling with drug addiction. We’re a long way from Panic in Needle Park and Trainspotting, where drug-use and poverty was inextricably connected. Nicolas Scheff, played in arresting detail by Timothée Chalamet, has everything a child could want or need – with the brains too. Beautiful Boy reminds us that drug addiction, once it has taken hold, can pull anyone to their knees and it impacts on everyone that surrounds them.
Set in the early noughties, Nicolas is eighteen and has colleges keen for him to join and a family who love and adore him. His parents are separated, but the family of his father has two siblings who dote over him and we see how Nicky has always been in love with them too. Told in disjointed flashbacks, Nicolas began with marijuana and graduated to ecstasy, cocaine, LSD and then to crystal meth. David, his father, researches and obsesses, desperate to find any cure to the disease of his child. But crystal methamphetamine is a drug that destroys nerves and damages the brain – each hit is inferior to the last, requiring more drugs to reach the same high again. Beautiful Boy is about coping with addiction, and in particular a child (step-son, relative, friend) who is an addict.
Van Groeningen has to move between periods to tell this heart-breaking true story involving Rolling Stone and New York Magazine journalist, David Scheff. There is a sense that, primarily told from his perspective, this is directed at parents. The conflict of raising this beautiful part of you into a grown adult and then tragically seeing them break away and, on their own terms, self-destruct. In one scene Nicolas and David go surfing and, briefly, Nicolas goes over the waves and David is left for thirty seconds calling out for him and hearing no response. It perfectly captures the conflict, where David cannot control this young man at every point even though they mean everything to each other.By focusing on the father and son relationship, there is clear criticism of the pragmatic and “fixable” approach many men can apply to such challenging problems. David researches, reasons, argues and deconstructs every solution but still has to contend with an “enemy” that has more power over his son. Nicky’s mother (Amy Ryan) is sensitively introduced and his step-mother (Maura Tierney), clearly, is doing everything in her power to support her broken husband and unmanageable step-son. In one moment, she drives after Nicolas after he breaks into their house and we want her to catch up; to tell him how it is; to change the anticipated course of events.
There is a sweet use of the word “everything” between David and Nic. These sensitive moments are carefully placed and are slowly revealed in the non-linear structure Van Groeningen has opted for. Music, also, dominates the soundtrack, weaving montages together with dramatic weight. Between the references to The Beautiful and Damned and David Bowie, addiction and art are inextricably linked but it is a conscious decision to not point the blame at anyone or anything in particular: some people are addicts and some are not. Towering performances in Chalamet , Carell and Tierney ground Beautiful Boy on solid foundations and, though the pace can be a tad uneven, the brutal reality and ugly inevitability of drug addiction is painstakingly captured in this thought-provoking feature.