Felix Van Goeningen (director)
20 May 2019 (released)
19 May 2019
Based on the best-selling memoirs of David Sheff and Nicholas Sheff respectively, BEAUTIFUL BOY chronicles a family’s desperate struggle to save their teenage son from death due to drug addiction. While the topic itself is powerful and the acting compelling, it’s fair to say that the film’s downbeat vibe and the continuously slow pace make this an affair which may not be appreciated by some viewers.
When teenager Nicholas ‘Nic’ Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) goes missing – only to turn up again a few days later - his dad David (Steve Carell) quickly realises that drugs are responsible for his son’s erratic behaviour and he arranges for a stint in a rehab clinic. Little does David know that this marks only the beginning of a very long nightmare… Naturally, and like most parents, David and his second wife Karen (Maura Tierney) who is Nic’s stepmother, ask themselves were they went wrong – in particular David who is a freelance journo, and Karen who is a painter: both are pretty cool, artistic and liberal thinking, with a family life that, outwardly at least, seems happy and with two half-siblings making things complete. So liberal in fact is David that during one occasion, we see him sharing a spliff with his young son Nic. In addition, Nic seems incredibly bright and does well in college, expressing his desire for wanting to become a musician and later a writer (he feels particularly inspired by Charles Bukowski). Which makes the question of “Why does our eldest son indulge in drugs?” even more depressing. But Nic does, and as it turns out seems to have done so for a while.
Through flashbacks (which run throughout the film) we not only get acquainted with the various younger versions of Nic (portrayed by different actors) but perhaps David’s divorce from first wife Vicky (Amy Ryan) has something to do with Nic’s sense of lost self. Both David and Vicky continue to bicker over the phone as to who is the poorer parent. On the subject of flashbacks, Nico Leunen’s editing (a constant switch from past events back to the current situation) does precious little to enrich the plot’s structure – if anything, it only results in being unnecessarily irritating!
Throughout the course of the film, Nic, who by now counts crystal meth and later smack to his drugs of choice, not only checks in and out of rehab (occasionally simply vanishing) but also switches cities: when he expresses his wish to move to the Big Apple and asks daddy for money he rightly refuses as he reckons Nic will fritter it away on drugs. Nic leaves anyway and it’s not before long when David’s phone rings with a New York hospital on the other end of the line – informing him that his son had overdosed. Back it is again to his parents and for more stints in rehab – Nic even enjoys his first romance with a girl he knows from college, Lauren (Kaitlyn Dever) but soon she too will not only share bed but also the needle with Nic…
As the situation seems to spiral out of control, Nic’s real mum Vicki offers to do her share of parenting. Nic moves to Los Angeles where she now lives. For a while things look brighter and Nic is also in constant phone contact with Spencer (Andre Royo), his sponsor/counsellor. For whatever the reason, Nic has a relapse and – sick and tired of everything – heads for San Francisco in a depressed and suicidal state. By coincidence he bumps into Lauren and the two get together again – with near-fatal consequences for her. In between, the young couple drive to the posh house of Nic’s dad, with him and the rest of the family out on a daytrip. Nic and Lauren steal valuables from the house (no doubt to finance their drug habit) and are spotted running away by half-brother Jasper just as the family returns. Dad David runs after the pair who escape in their car, followed by Karen in her car though she gives up half-way through the chase. Karen and in particular David have finally come to accept that their son seems a lost cause – when Nic phones again asking for help his dad heartbrokenly declares he will no longer help him as it’s pointless. Only after Nic overdoses again and miraculously survives, things finally change for the better.
Admittedly the scenes of drug use and the increasing strain Nic’s drug addiction has on his family are excellently and very realistically depicted. That said, in particular the film’s first half is somewhat of a challenge to watch - with not much happening except repeated rehab sessions, endless psychological analysis and all the other therapy babble so favoured by Americans. Indeed, were it not for the fact that the real David Sheff is a journalist, a book of his ordeal (and a second book by son Nic of his ordeal) my never have come to fruition – which also goes for the consequent film adaptation. Trust the Yanks to turn personal tragedy into money!
BEAUTIFUL BOY might not be a commercial crowd-pleaser (in fact, it will probably fare better with movie critics) but it’s an important and honest film nonetheless. The Special Features also include ‘The True Story behind the Film’.