In 2008, journalist David Sheff and his son Nic published parallel memoirs, Beautiful Boy and Tweak, detailing Nic’s struggles with drug addiction and David’s efforts to help him. Both books are credited as source material for the film Beautiful Boy, directed by Felix van Groeningen (Broken Circle Breakdown) and written by him and Luke Davies (Lion), a former heroin addict — but the focus is on the father, played by a suddenly very dad-like Steve Carell, more than the kid (Timothee Chalamet). The shift in perspective (these stories are usually from the junkie’s point of view) gives Carell the opportunity to do some fine dramatic work as a loving father experiencing the multiple heartbreaks of parenthood, on his way to accepting that you can’t “save” anyone. All you can do is be there for them.
Van Groeningen’s telling of the story involves a fractured timeline and unmarked flashbacks, often prompted by David going somewhere and recalling times he was there with Nic. The editing gets ahead of itself: With no context, we see Nic, who went off the grid for a couple days, sitting in a donut shop; then we cut to David at the airport, getting a call from Nic; then we cut back to the donut shop, where David is now arriving: The first shot was a flash-forward. All of these devices disorient us (not unpleasantly) and suggest a continuous, never-ending cycle of recovery and relapse (though the ending is optimistic; Nic obviously survived long enough to write a book).
As played by a skinny, pale Chalamet, Nic looks terribly young, but then sometimes seems so mature; it’s exactly the right mixture of childhood and adulthood to make an 18-year-old meth addict seem vulnerable and in need of fixing. There are worthy supporting performances by Maura Tierney as David’s second wife (with whom he has two younger kids, Nic’s half-siblings) and Amy Ryan as his ex-wife, Nic’s mom. The struggles and aggravations are heartrending, probably more so if you’re a parent, probably MORE so if you’re the parent of a wayward child. But even a childless flaneur like myself can see the intense love and sorrow in Carell’s performance, along with a father’s steadfast refusal to ever give up.