To say that this is a straight up tear jerker would be a bit of an understatement and yet I went into this fully expecting not to have that visceral of a reaction, I was however, very, very wrong about this. For approximately the first third of the film my original sentiment - this film will not break me like the others - remained true. But the feelings of isolation, loss, daily grind, guilt and yearning explored eventually become too overwhelming and by the halfway mark I was a weepy mess. It’s not so much a sledge hammer of emotion, there are no soul piercing monologues, it’s more a continual feeling of grief, of wanting for something that’s already lost which gets you in the end.
This is for all intents and purposes, and despite being based on a true story, a pretty formulaic story of addiction. Steve Carell, continuing a string of very successful dramatic roles (that sounds patronising - he is extremely good at acting) is once again excellent as the struggling father, trying to reconcile his need to rescue his addicted son, believing their familial connection to be stronger than most, with the loss of the child he thought he knew and can’t hold onto. It’s this sense of loss, that Nic, played with supreme realism by golden boy Timothee Chalamet, has been lost to addiction since before the film begins, that their relationship will forever be altered, that Steve will never know the son he raised, and remembers often in flashback, again, that really penetrates and creates that continual sense of mourning in the viewer. It’s not a new story, it’s tried and tested but the way this story is told and understated, is what really hits it home.
The familiar trajectory of Beautiful Boy is made fresh by some seamless non-linear storytelling. Yes, a couple of jumps had me wondering where the hell I was in all of this but as each disjointed segment fed into the next the viewer is taken on an emotional journey rather than a straightforward narrative path. Movements in time take you from the depths of Nic’s addiction, back to more carefree childhood days, then to his time in rehab. Personally, I found the segments which could seemingly be from any and all of these time periods the most affecting. The scene in which David (Carell) is playing with the family dogs on his own sticks out as a scene which could be from nearly any point in the film and delivers an unexpected tinge of grief you might not have expected from such an everyday activity. Which is all this story needs, really. We, and I suspect director Felix van Groeningen who co-wrote the screenplay with Luke Davies, know what’s coming. We can figure out where in the story we are without being told. Better then to inform us of the dynamic emotional landscape these characters are traversing. However I feel this sense of being lost in time may serve a larger purpose yet… more on this in a sec.
Everything is downplayed ere in a super realistic fashion. Even the more heightened emotional scenes feel grounded. This is a feel steeped in truth and lit, in an understatedly beautiful palette, to match. Hysterics were not expected from the performers, apparently, just the audience. Maura Tierney, of ER fame, is a great example of this, turning in a performance that is as spectacular as it is spectacularly subtle. For most of the film she almost fades into the background, Nic’s concerned stepmum with two younger kids of her own to think about. It’s not until a ‘high-speed’ car chase that we are allowed to see her own anguish, which has been there in the tenseness of her jaw the entire film, come to the surface. When it does the moment feels all too real. I dare anyone not to sob along like you aren’t in the passenger seat of that hatchback. The moments when cinematographer Ruben Impens gets too use a little more flair/flare are used to illustrate Nic’s heightened state and not overdone like they potentially could have been.
I should probably say more about Timothee. This is a far cry from making out with Armie Hammer and eating peaches under the Tuscan sun and for me Chalamet really finds his groove here. Slipping comfortably into the character and the performance in a new way. He’s great and I’ve been telling people that since the second season of Homeland. Enough?
One gets the sense throughout that there is no end to this film. No satisfying conclusion to come to as the battle with addiction is a perpetual struggle, and the film really does a good job of illustrating that point. This is where that non-linear storytelling comes into play in another, very effective way. Wherever the viewer is in the linear story of Nic and his addiction doesn’t really matter. He will always be an addict at some stage of relapse or recovery. Yes, we can hope and the film doesn’t leave us on the bleakest note it possibly could. We know from their real life counterparts that Nic has remained sober since the final scene of the movie, but the film is also quick to point out that his fight for sobriety is a daily battle. This I believe is the point of the film and one that’s excellently put across, while at the same time delivering a tidal wave of emotion that will leave even the most determined cynical viewer wet in the face.
I didn’t expect to have all of the feelings watching Beautiful Boy, I thought it would be a well made, well acted, familiar story of addiction, but I was wrong. Something about the realistic, underplayed nature of the performances; the lack of seedy underworld or corrupting, two-dimensional drug dealing villains you might expect; the non-linear structure which takes you on an emotional ride; that we aren't left feeling resolute; that it feels like life continues on for these characters after the credits all combine to make this a fresh, devastating new take on addiction.
Oh and stay for the end of credits scene if you’re into some beat poetry, yah? Ok.