Review: 'Beautiful Boy', Steve Carell And Timothee Chalamet Deliver A Very Special Episode About Drug Addiction

“When I tried it, I felt better than I ever had. So I kept doing it.”

The explanation given by Nic Sheff (Timothee Chalamet) why he keeps doing crystal meth is simple, honest, and so unlike what many Hollywood dramas would provide. There's no abuse in his background, no traumatic event that steered him into a life of addiction, it's just a feeling. Beautiful Boy, a drama based on the separate memoirs of the real-life Nic and his father David Sheff (Steve Carell), tries hard not to be the typical movie about drug addition. It's a sobering, earnest account about one boy's struggles and his father's attempts to understand. But as the film bucks conventions in depicting their heartbreaking story, it fails to actually be anything other than depressing.

In combining the two memoirs by Nic and David, director Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) and co-writer Luke Davies (Lion) use mood and music to connect different points in time. We see the father and son together in much better times, such as Nic and David sharing a joint not knowing just how far the narcotics rabbit hole they would be in short order. This is very much David's story, though, disappointing because it's Nic who has the most interesting and most personal perspective. Mostly we follow David, a freelance writer with an extraordinary amount of disposable income, as he glooms over Nic's addictions and wonders how it got so bad.

To that end, we see David investigate everything he can about crystal meth, even trying a little bit of it himself. Carell is a funny guy and intensely likable, so we can't help but chuckle a little bit even though we're horrified at his experimental use of the powerful drug. We understand why he did it and feel his pain, never realized more acutely than when he admits, “There are moments when I look at him, this kid I raised, who I thought I knew inside and out… and I don’t know who he is.”

It's a powerful admission, and there are a handful of moments just as raw. While David may not recognize who his son has become, their interactions are hurtful in ways that are sharply intimate. Nic, whose repeated attempts at recovery always end in relapse, attacks his father for being motivated by embarrassment rather than genuine concern. And there's definitely some truth to that; David is a good guy, perhaps too good, but he has blind spots. The bulk of Beautiful Boy is Nic repeatedly taking advantage of David, and we keep waiting for there to be this turning of the corner when the film will grow more hopeful. Unfortunately, it never comes.

The lack of emotional payoff has nothing to do with the performances. Carell's everyman charm is on full display here, which only makes David's struggles all the more real. We're with him as he first learns of Nic's addiction, well after it's already begun, and feel his desperate need to do SOMETHING about it, even if that's just driving around the city in hopes of finding his wayward boy. While I wish we could've seen things more from Nic's vantage point, it's not a knock on Chalamet. So many would have turned Nic into a quivering, sweaty cliché, but Chalamet is so soft-spoken, reserved, and perceptive. Never for a second do we get anything but authenticity out of him, and it's another glowing example of what a talent he will be for a long time to come.

Beautiful Boy has all of the credentials, and is clearly a movie with big Oscars aspirations, but it never packs the emotional punch that it should.  To that point, there's no great revelation or catharsis, just facts and figures delivered like this was a "very special episode" or an after school special.

Rating: 3 out of 5