October 4, 2018 at 12:53 pm PST | by John Paul King
A star shines ever brighter in ‘Beautiful Boy’

Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carrell in ‘Beautiful Boy.’ (Photo courtesy Amazon Studios and Plan B Entertainment)

After his star-making turn in last year’s “Call Me By Your Name,” fans of Timothée Chalamet have been eagerly awaiting the young actor’s return to the screen.

Their wait is over with the release of “Beautiful Boy,” a new drama about a family thrown into turmoil by crystal meth.

It tells the real-life story of successful writer David Sheff (Steve Carrell) and his teenage son Nic (Chalamet), who have what can only be described as the picture-perfect ideal of a father-son relationship – until Nic’s increasingly erratic behavior leads to the discovery that he has been using meth. Ever the supportive parent, David is determined to help; but despite his best efforts, Nic continues to relapse, and his loving father is forced to recognize that he can only watch, powerless, as his beloved boy slides further into addiction.

Adapted from two complementary memoirs by the real David and Nic Sheff (“Beautiful Boy” and “Tweak,” respectively), the film endeavors to show their experiences from both perspectives. Director Felix Van Groeningen, working from a screenplay he co-authored with Luke Davies, assembles his movie a bit like a collage, flashing forward and backward through time to reveal memories of the past and foreshadows of the future as both father and son endure their separate-but-intertwined struggles.  It’s an effective approach; Van Groeningen handles it skillfully, maintaining a natural flow that prevents the non-linear departures from making things seem disjointed.

Even so, this stream-of-consciousness structure – which, along with its eclectic, deep-cut rock-and-roll soundtrack, gives “Beautiful Boy” a comfortably quirky, indie feel – leads to a sort of clinical distance.  The tone seems detached and observational; we watch what happens on the screen without really being drawn in to even the most intense situations.  As a result, the film is less moving than one might expect – or desire – from a narrative as emotionally charged as this one.

Not that this is necessarily a flaw; there’s much to be said for the power of understatement in telling such stories.  The plot, though based on an admittedly heartbreaking real-life experience, is almost a cliché – we’ve seen it so many times it feels like an overused Hollywood formula, and one that easily turns maudlin, at that.  Anyone who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s will remember the “After-School Specials,” those cautionary tales about the dangers of bad behavior and foolish choices; if allowed to devolve into overwrought emotional manipulation, “Beautiful Boy” might well have turned into a modern version of one of those.

Thankfully, it does not; and though Van Groeningen deserves some of the credit for keeping things restrained, it’s really the work of the cast that ensures the movie stays this side of melodrama.

Carrell, known more for his comedic skills, reminds us here that he also possesses some serious acting chops.  His portrayal of a devastated father is meticulously truthful; yes, there is anger and despair, but these are punctuations in a journey that is really about frustration, bewilderment, and – ultimately – acceptance.

As for Chalamet, he veers into territory carved out by actors like DeNiro by undergoing some harrowing physical transformation to portray his character in the depth of addiction, but his internal performance is every bit as authentic as his exterior presentation.  From the bright confidence of intelligent youth to the blank numbness of a desperate addict – and everything in between – this gifted actor brings his role completely to life, proving his astonishing performance in “Call Me By Your Name” was no fluke.

The other players are effective, too; Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney, as Nic’s mother and stepmother, respectively, assert their presence despite being largely left on the sidelines in this father-and-son tale.  Stefanie Scott has a luminous and heartbreaking turn as Nic’s college girlfriend; and Timothy Hutton, in a nod to his own iconic troubled-teen performance in “Ordinary People,” has an all-too-brief performance as a psychiatrist who helps the elder Sheff understand what his son is going through.

With all this excellent work on the screen, one would think that “Beautiful Boy” should be a powerful movie; likewise, as possibly the first major film to deal with crystal meth as something other than a criminal enterprise, one would hope it might live up to a potential for carrying a powerful message about addiction and recovery.

As good as it is, though, it somehow falls short.  Part of this may have to do with its aforementioned emotional detachment; but perhaps the problem is something deeper, something for which there may ultimately be no solution.

In depicting the subject of addiction, most movies – no matter how good their intentions – inevitably leave an impression of those in its grip as somehow weak, somehow victims of their own choice.  The reality, as anyone who either works in recovery or is in recovery themselves will tell you, is that they are as powerless to stop themselves by choice as their loved ones are to help them.  That’s the true heartbreak of substance dependence, and even though a film may be filled with words that express it, it’s virtually impossible to convey the truth of it to an audience who does not understand it firsthand.

Consequently, despite the honest integrity of Chalamet’s performance and the effort of the writers to tell his side of the story, for many viewers Nic is likely to come off as a kid who puts his family through hell just because he wants to get high – something that is only half the truth.

Still, “Beautiful Boy” is a well-made film.  Even if it fails to deliver a fully understandable portrait of addiction, it certainly offers a realistic one, and thanks to the two excellent performances at its center, it never fails to be engrossing.

Everyone who is a fan of young Mr. Chalamet, of course, will consider this one a must-see – but it’s a pretty safe bet for anyone else, too.

“Beautiful Boy” opens in theaters on Oct. 12.

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