Rarely do I not connect with a movie at all. Yet, during Beautiful Boy, I was merely an observer, watching what was happening with no emotional investment. That’s a real problem for a movie that depends upon having empathy for its characters. I wasn’t bored and I didn’t necessarily dislike it; however, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend it.
Based on the best-selling memoirs by David Sheff (Beautiful Boy) and Nic Sheff (Tweak), Beautiful Boy is a father-and-son story about a father whose relationship disintegrates, seemingly beyond his control, as his son falls deeper and deeper into the pit of drug addiction. It should be devastating. I’ve heard stories of uncontrollable tears caused by reading the books.
The screenplay by Luke Davies and Felix Van Groeningen doesn’t translate well to the big screen. It’s choppy, flashing back frequently to show Nic as a little boy (Kue Lawrence at ages four and six, Jack Dylan Grazer at age 12). I’m sure this device is intended to demonstrate changes between then and now, but it might have been more effective all in one chunk.
More problematic, though, are the adult characters and actors. As David Sheff, Steve Carell gives a one-note performance, sad and mopey the entire time. He takes a clinical approach to helping his son by consulting with doctors about the physiological effect of drug use on the brain. He’s all business, rarely allowing himself to feel emotion. If he doesn’t, should we?
More disappointing is Timothee Chalamet as Nic Sheff, hot off his Oscar-nominated performance in Call Me by Your Name. He doesn’t demonstrate nearly as much depth of character or psychological turmoil going through drug abuse and recovery as he did going through romance and heartbreak. He’s not bad; he’s just not terrific.
This leaves any real emotional performance to the always-terrific Maura Tierney in a supporting role as David’s second wife, and Nic’s stepmother, Karen Barbour. She’s a rock for David until, pushed too far one too many times, she falls apart, chasing Nic on a drive before pulling over on the side of the road to weep uncontrollably.
I’ll mention the performance of Amy Ryan as David’s ex-wife, Vicki, not because she stands out as the yang to his yin, but because she had a run on The Office as the looney object of Michael Scott’s (Carell) affection. Even though it’s laughter instead of tears, that’s at least a show that consistently elicited emotion.
I feel like the actors needed a little more direction than relative newcomer Van Groeningen could provide. I’m not sure he was emotionally invested in the movie, either. After all this, I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth because of the public service announcement that appears on screen at the end, making Beautiful Boy feel like an average TV movie instead of a powerful motion picture.