The film begins in the middle of events, with David consulting a specialist to understand his son’s substance abuse: establishing his perspective as the central one. We are then cast back to “One Year Earlier”, and from here repeatedly move between Nic’s present struggles to remain sober (played in these scenes by Timothée Chalamet) and reminiscences of his childhood. These moments coalesce to form a temporally indistinct whole that suggests the blur of years of addiction, with the narrative progressing more by subjective association than plot-driven logic.
Music is effectively employed to unite moments across different time periods. Nirvana’s Territorial Pissings plays on the soundtrack as David drives in the rain looking for Nic, who has once again checked-out of rehab. It continues as we cut to an adolescent Nic (Jack Dylan Grazer) elatedly screaming along in the car with his dad. A few shots later we see Nic, slightly older now, producing a spliff and suggesting his father share it with him as Bowie’s Sound and Vision plays on the radio, before that song segues to David in the present-day, solemnly researching methamphetamine use. While seemingly depicting a trajectory from familial utopia to drug-induced misery, the sun-soaked recollections of a younger Nic stress incipient signs of his later malady. His musical idols underscore his alienation; he increasingly diverges from his father’s views on life; and we witness a recurring predilection for thrill-seeking.
Combining elements from both their memoirs – Nic’s experience of methamphetamine addiction detailed in Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines (2007) and David’s Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through his Son’s Addiction (2008) – the film presents an unusually tempered narrative. Director Felix Van Groeningen’s approach is commendably unsensational. Events are portrayed with a melancholy distance, while even the more intense emotions are somewhat muffled. Shot in a naturalistic fashion, the film utilises largely static camerawork, natural lighting, and ambient sound to ground the anxieties that comprise David’s reality. Meanwhile, the chilly phantom of addiction is as palpable in Nic’s absence from the family home as in his anguished presence.
Chalamet, fresh from the acclaim of Call Me By Your Name, delivers another sensitively wrought performance as Nic: nominated for a Best Supporting Actor BAFTA despite three other actors’ sharing the role. One brief but compelling scene shows him feign good humour as he reunites with his father in a café, until his father refuses his request for money. Body language, facial tics and tone of voice shift as he struggles to disguise his distress. In a few minutes, Chalamet runs the emotional gauntlet from joviality to desperation, apologetic to aggressive, before abruptly leaving with a curt “bye dad.” Nic’s expressive somersaults illustrate the physiological changes to meth users’ brains – the specialist notes that their “amygdala is screaming” – and are potently conveyed here. Meanwhile, Steve Carrell is stoically effective as the doting father determined to protect his son from harm, but less convincing when shifting into apoplectic mode.
Beautiful Boy is a complex, human portrait of grief: evoking the confusion of days lost under the dark cloud of addiction. Although proceeding at a uniform pace, it’s layered with moments of subtle poignancy: the recurring motif of David seeing his son off at the airport; his reluctant denial of further help to Nic, as well as the wordless final shot. Meanwhile, Chalamet and Carrell’s engaging and committed performances ensure viewers will be glued to this subdued but compassionate drama until the credits roll.
Beautiful Boy is out now on Digital Download, Blu Ray and DVD.
Words by Daniel Pateman @Hopeandglory.
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