From the outside, addiction can be maddeningly opaque. One of the truest-feeling scenes in Beautiful Boy finds a confused father (Steve Carell) asking his college-age son (Timothée Chalamet) why he abuses drugs. We’d like to know, too. Chalamet’s Nic is the type of kid for whom the phrase “has everything going for him” was coined: He’s smart, kind, good-looking, talented, and ambitious. A product of Marin County, the wealthy enclave across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, he’s also rather ordinary: a white, upper-middle-class kid who gets along great with his writer dad and painter stepmom (Maura Tierney) and nurses the kind of adolescent reverence for Charles Bukowski that thousands of boys just like him embark upon, then outgrow, every year. So why does Nic end up hooked on meth and alcohol? “I don’t know, I don’t know,” he repeats sincerely.
Based on the memoirs David and Nic Sheff wrote about their experiences, Beautiful Boy knows there aren’t any easy explanations for Nic’s addiction. No trauma incites his journey into hell, and other than his parents’ divorce when he was rather young, he seems to never have suffered any great hardship. The young man simply doesn’t want to live in “the real world,” but who does? In that sense, this drama from Felix Van Groeningen (who also co-wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated Broken Circle Breakdown) is deeply compassionate.
The glamorous memorabilia we see in the family’s beautiful woodsy home, including a letter to Nic by artist Keith Haring, implies what the post-film titles noting that addiction is now the leading cause of death of people younger than 50 says outright: This could happen to anyone, no matter how wealthy or privileged.
Unfortunately, the lack of a precipitating factor, the invisible impulses behind addiction, and the episodic nature of recovery (sobriety, relapse, sobriety, relapse) don’t exactly lend themselves to a compelling narrative structure. Beautiful Boy lends empathy to every major character—the father who realizes his son has become a stranger, the mother (played by Carell’s The Office co-star Amy Ryan) who second-guesses her long-ago decision to give up primary custody, and the very young siblings (Christian Convery and Oakley Bull) who don’t understand why their beloved brother keeps disappearing from their lives. Most of all, we understand that Nic’s shame and self-loathing about the things he did while high or to get there lead him to continue using drugs to escape those very feelings. We begin to understand David’s feelings of constant frustration at these dreary cycles of addiction, and while that might be exactly what the film (admirably) intends, there’s no denying it makes for a vexing viewing experience.
Beautiful Boy is further hampered by Van Groeningen’s pointless but relentless focus on David’s journalism career. The film opens with David proposing to write about a subject closer to his heart—i.e., his son’s addiction—but we don’t see how he struggled to grapple with that subject or how the writing process gave him new insight into his son. Nor does Nic’s discovery of his father’s manuscript alter his behavior in any way. We see David snorting a line of something after another young addict tells him that a meth high is akin to cocaine times a thousand, but we never learn what he gleans from that. These scenes don’t just feel wasteful. They underscore how little Van Groeningen and co-writer Luke Davies bothered to characterize their protagonists beyond “dutiful father” and “prodigal son.” You can physically track the growing resignation with which Carell’s character accepts that he can’t do much for his son, while an exceedingly thin Chalamet continues to find new corners of disaffected youth he hasn’t embodied before, but neither are served by a script that wants its dual protagonists to serve as aspirational figures.
Despite those archetypal characterizations, Beautiful Boy still features several moving scenes. It’s particularly poignant when we see Nic as David sees him: as a little kid or a gawky preteen or an alienated-in-a-normal-way young man—as a palimpsest of memories from the times when Nic represented nothing but hope and innocence. Fast cuts and soft, sad pop—along with a careful eye to early 2000s period details—create a sense of groundedness and bittersweet intimacy. But Beautiful Boy ultimately has little new to say about addiction, especially to those who already see it as a disease, rather than a personal failing. By the end, we feel as powerless to help as David, with the same sense that we’ve seen this movie before.