Addiction is always hard to talk about in media, especially considering how much the topic is stigmatised. Nevertheless, with the help of Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell, director Felix Van Groeningen embarked himself on a tough journey of portraying addiction in his latest film — Beautiful Boy. Although his attempts are surely remarkable, the film does fail to create an emotional connection between the characters and the average viewer.
The movie is based on a pair of bestselling memoirs by David Sheff, played by Steve Carell, and his son, Nic Sheff, played by Timothée Chalamet. The audience is shown how Nic’s methamphetamine addiction has affected his family: from constantly worrying about his whereabouts when he goes missing, to wondering whether it is Nic that stole the money from the piggy bank of his younger siblings. Everyone, even those not personally acquainted with addiction are exposed to the destructive force that it is. Through a sequence of highs and lows, it is noticeable how recovery is not a linear process and is harder than one may find it to be — this is one of the positive aspects of the movie, as it educates the average viewer on the process of addiction recovery in greater depth.
The film strives to achieve emotional resonance with the viewers: to those who have encountered addiction, it may act as a consolation; to the others, Van Groeningen’s approach fails to allow the audience to fully emotionally connect with its characters. With its lack of a constant, linear narrative, the audience is provided with a way to detach themselves from the horror of Nic’s addiction and enjoy the sunlit memories of David. Yet the flashbacks strip the film of a sense of immediacy, providing it with a documentary-like feel, rather than a heartfelt story. Perhaps, what also contributes to this is the use of unsuitable music, which often has no significance to the action of the film or is used to make up for the lack of the emotionality of the scenes. Without its skilful incorporation into the film, the scenes often feel bland or at times, emotionally manipulative.
However, one may argue that the non-linear narration allows Van Groeningen to show the anguish that David has: as he watches over his younger children swim and play, the only thing on his mind is his oldest son, missing and lost within his addiction. Although Carell’s performance is mostly genuine, providing a realistic portrayal of a father that is gradually losing his son, it is at times when he goes slightly overboard that the viewer is snapped back to reality, disconnecting from the movie. Nevertheless, as it is for any parent, it is too painful for him to watch Nic’s addiction spiral out of control and this is something Carell does succeed at conveying.
The character of Nic Sheff has a little less depth to it than expected, perhaps due to the movie being told from David’s perspective. Although Chalamet’s portrayal of Nic is brilliant, even his casting cannot compensate for the lack of development the audience is provided for his character. The viewer only knows that he is addicted to methamphetamines — even the numerous flashbacks from David’s standpoint cannot shed a little more light on Nic’s past. Perhaps, there could have been a bit more memories useful to the viewer, rather than just those with purely sentimental value for David. Nic’s actions, to an average viewer, may be considered to be mean-spirited, as they may not realise that all of them are fuelled by his addiction: he verbally abuses his father, steals from his younger siblings’ piggybank and runs away from home. Hence, to some, he may become a character that does not deserve the viewer’s sympathy.
Amidst the gripping tale of father and son, there are also some reminders of the presence of women on the scene. With Maura Tierney playing David’s wife and mother of his two children and Amy Ryan playing David’s ex-wife and Nic’s mother, almost as if ghosts, they float onscreen, providing little to no significance for the plot. Their fruitless attempts to help Nic go unnoticed due to the emphasis placed on David’s point of view and the bond between father and son that the viewer is constantly reminded of throughout the movie. Carell and Chalamet receive all the spotlight, Ryan and Tierney remain behind the curtains.
Beautiful Boy is a surely heartbreaking story that sheds some light on addiction, but it still lacks that emotional connection that could have been established with the audience. Despite the casting of Chalamet, brilliantly playing the part of Nic, the acting of Carell, on the other hand, often feels slightly too forced and overexaggerated. Overall, the movie does a mediocre job at portraying addiction in a way that makes the audience emotionally connect with the characters. While it is not the worst attempt, there are surely some improvements to be made next time.
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