Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen brings his talents to bear on the true story of Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet), a talented and charismatic young writer eaten up and spat out by drug addiction. The result is a nicely shot, often very moving, but ultimately safe drama with two Academy-baiting performances.
Van Groeningen shoots his actors in near-constant close-up, privileging their performances. It’s not without good reason, either – both Chalamet and his onscreen father, Steve Carell, are affecting, nuanced and humane. Carell walks away with the film, his tortured parent a well-spring of love, frustration and disappointment. Sadly, the focus on Carell and Chalamet means that the supporting characters barely get a look in. Maura Tierney is excellent but burdened with a thankless role as David Sheff’s second wife, and his first, Vicki (the excellent Amy Ryan), barely registers as Nic’s mother.
Furthermore, there’s a nagging sense of discomfort that it’s this white, wealthy family’s story that is being told, as opposed to the stories of the impoverished non-whites from whom Nic sources his drugs. Those poor souls are invariably held at the margins of the frame while we gasp at the sadness of wasted privilege. It’s not that it’s not a worthy story, but that the tragedy stems from the fact that this dreadful thing doesn’t normally and shouldn’t happen to nice, talented people like Nic.
Nevertheless, as David’s patience wears ever more thin with Nic’s cycle of recovery and relapse, Beautiful Boy proves itself to be indelibly moving. One of Van Groeningen’s better directorial choices is to pepper the plot with flashbacks of Nic’s childhood, reminding us of the beautiful in David’s boy. It’s hard not to relate both to David as a loving, heartbroken father, and Nic as a fallen son caught in a terrible cycle of self-loathing and destructive behaviour.
On the occasions when Van Groeningen’s camera does pull back from close-ups, the results are often lovely. One shot of the woods near the Sheff’s house is especially arresting, while another, peering under a toilet door as Nic shoots poison into himself is heartbreaking. Far from perfect, and very rarely offering us anything unexpected, Beautiful Boy is nevertheless a well-mounted depiction of the terrible cycle of substance abuse. The discourses driving whose addiction is tragic and whose isn’t may be suspect, but there’s no doubt that Van Groeningen’s film achieves what it sets out to do. An Oscar surely beckons for the increasingly formidable Carell.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell