An earnest, relatively no-nonsense portrait of drug addiction, as seen through the eyes of both the addict (Timothée Chalamet) and his loving father (Steve Carell). Based on separate memoirs by journalist David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy is a thoughtful but ultimately routine family drama. It lacks the usual drug movie hysterics, but do we really need another film like this?
The best thing Beautiful Boy has going for it is Chalamet, who is consistently real throughout Nic's various relapses and recoveries. He's excellent. Carell, usually so funny and warm, here looks merely pious and pained, an El Greco saint ever-tortured by his prodigal son's lies and disappearances. And indeed, his David Sheff is depicted as quite saintly, a wonderful dad who's doing everything he can to help his child. Ironically, the trailer for this film is cut to suggest that David is at least partly to blame for Nic's emotional issues, but the film itself gives him a pass: when Nic states, at an AA meeting, that drugs and alcohol aren't the problem but merely his attempt to fix the problem, we're left to wonder what Nic's problem actually is. The film doesn't address it: we're told he was simply a smart, lovely kid with great potential, who for some unknown reason started doing hardcore drugs, and that ruined everything.
The film itself is simultaneously too specific – this is the story of the Sheffs, people you've never heard of before – and too generic – this is the story of everyone who has an addict in the family. As it unfolds often non-chronologically, we're not sure when it's taking place (presumably the early 2000s; the real Nic Sheff was born in 1982), or how many years are going by. Maybe this is Van Groeningen's intention, to reflect the time lost to addiction, but I found it distracting. And David Sheff's Marin house, so prominent on screen, looks fabulously expensive. Was he a successful enough journalist by the 1990s (he has written for Rolling Stone and The New York Times) that he could afford such an amazing place, or is this just a "movie house", eye candy for the audience?
Beautiful Boy isn't bad at all. Yet for the seriousness of its message – and make no mistake, this is a message movie – it is curiously inessential.