Monday, October 8, 2018

Film Review: Beautiful Boy (A-)

Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell in Beautiful Boy (Amazon Studios)

My first screening of Felix Van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy was at the Toronto Int'l Film Festival four weeks ago. After spending nearly 6 hours along the red carpet for the world premiere, and then going to the screening an hour later, I was too exhausted and overwhelmed by the film to write a fair review. Living in LA affords me the opportunity to see it for a second time (Oct 4th) before the film's limited release this Friday, October 12th, to allow me to write a more precise review. Even after reading David Sheff's same titled book, in which the film is based on, along with a portion of his son, Nic Sheff's book, Tweak, the film proved to be an emotional whirlwind that welcomes a second viewing to fully appreciate what it's trying to do. And what is that? Tell a harrowing tale that all too many families experience; a loved one trapped in the downward spiral of drug addiction, but in this case, the worse of them all, meth addiction.

The film starts off with David, played by the great Steve Carell while he's trying to do research on drug addiction because of his son. Immediately the viewer will watch this story unfold through the non-linear narrative lens in past and present to see the before and after effects of the devastating emotional, mental, and physical abuse that harms a close knit family. Nic Sheff's life, played by two younger actors and the brilliant Timothée Chalamet, from a 6 year old to a college age student, delicately weaves back and forth throughout the entire film as we watch how the breakup of his parent's marriage, and him being torn between two homes, hundreds of miles apart, may have been one of the reasons that lead to Nic becoming enchanted with using drugs. 

Relapses are incredibly painful, the next fix will take care of the pain.

Although there could have been other triggers in Nic's life that made him seek out drugs, but the film barely scratches that surface, and instead, give us a key scene where he's having dinner at a girlfriend's house and Nic appears to be having difficulty connecting with people and becomes withdrawn and nervous.  This is the first time we see him using pills from a medicine cabinet to calm his nerves, and to make him feel relaxed and good. And once that feeling assures and empowers him, he needs more. He needs to feel good like that again, to like himself better, but pills aren't good enough anymore, he needs something harder, something to inject. At this point in the film, Timothée Chalamet as 18 year old Nic is permanently etched into our minds as the actor for this role. The moments of angst, sorrow, self-doubt, hunger, and guilt of developing a constant craving for drugs can be seen in his face throughout the film. And that's how the flashbacks work so well in this film; the steady build up to how Nic's dependency on getting his next high changes this beautiful boy into a reckless, lying, manipulative kid that his father doesn't recognize anymore.

Beautiful Boy goes into deeper territory about drug addiction that most mainstream films miss focusing on:  The subtle changes over time in how drug addiction of a beloved child affects the parent and the rest of the family. Luckily for Nic, his parents are upper class and can pay for his rehab, but for how long, and even some rehab programs were too expensive for the Sheffs. When Nic comes home for a weekend visit, his father and his stepmother, Karen, played by Maura Tierney, are tense about his visit, but happy he's there. Nic seems a little off and distant, and when some money comes up missing and he's asked about it, Nic lies and goes off in a rage of denial and screaming paranoid defense for himself  'You're suffocating me!", and leaves his family under a dark cloud. That very cloud, like the painful relapses of drug addiction, fades and follows Nic throughout the course of the film. Even if you read the books, the film is so compelling and so tense you wonder if the next excruciating relapse will be Nic's last. 

David doesn't give Nic money, so Nic lashes out at him and blames him for his problems.

In a pivotal scene between David and Nic, many weeks go by since they last saw each other. Drug addicts always need money and give any excuse but the truth as to why they need it. David now realizes that he has to stop enabling his son and tell him no. He offers food and a hotel room, but no, Nic needs the money for drugs and he yells at his father and tells him off and blames his dad for his problems. Timothée and Steve did a wonderful job during this scene in showing opposing viewpoints of a family wrecked by addiction. Both are in pain and don't know what to do to fix this. Rehab is difficult and scary for addicts because as Beautiful Boy demonstrate, all these drugs, especially meth, change the chemistry in the brain making the addict constantly looking for the next fix, while rehab is painful due to the ravishing punishment that detoxing does to the body. Drugs = feel good; Detox = horrible pain. 

The second viewing of this film was important because I was better able to appreciate the back and forth flow of the film which relied heavily on using two younger actors to play Nic. He was a seemingly happy and normal beautiful boy growing up until after his father created a new family. Nic and David Sheff were very brave to share their story, and they should be proud of what Timothée and Steve have done to bring their story to life. This film could have been even more grittier, but I think that would have been distracting, and the tension experienced in this film already, was enough to get the point across. I had to literally unclench my jaw for one scene near the end of the film... even on the second viewing, that's how whipped you are by the end of  this powerful film. However, misery porn can only go so far in film before you lose your audience in shock or in disbelief. Thankfully, Beautiful Boy knew just how far to push it.

The journey to this point is gut wrenching.

The brilliant young Timothée Chalamet will certainly receive an Oscar nomination in Supporting for his performance, and he will certainly deserve to win, especially since he still has so much good will 'awards karma' from the previous awards season. The physical transformation that he went through, losing 20 lbs on an already very slender body was noticeable, and demonstrates his commitment to showing the real effects of a young drug addict. The withdrawals, the mood swings, the glazed over eyes and drugged induced euphoria, and general overall unkempt looks took a beautiful boy and made him into a sad mess that we empathized with because so many of us know, or knew, someone like him.