Movie Review: ‘Beautiful Boy’ is timely, sometimes frustrating look at addiction

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Beautiful Boy' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — To say the opioid crisis is ravaging the country is an understatement. Let’s face it, many folks have lost friends, family and acquaintances to the tidal wave at this point.

Now, the subject is tackled in the new drama “Beautiful Boy,” which is admirably earnest in showing a timely topic, but is occasionally frustrating in its relapses and unsatisfying finish.

Based on the best-selling pair of memoirs “Beautiful Boy” and “Tweak” by father and son David and Nic Sheff, the film follows troubled teenager Nic (Timothée Chalamet), who dabbles in alcohol, weed and cocaine before becoming addicted to heroin and crystal meth.

His distraught father David (Steve Carell) communicates with his long-distance ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan) and new live-in partner Karen (Maura Tierney) to place Nic in various rehab facilities, but Nic’s constant relapses test their patience and strain their relationships.

By now, it’s late in the game to say that Carell is showing his serious side, proven in his depressed uncle in “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006), widower in “Dan in Real Life” 2007), jerk stepdad in “The Way Way Back” (2013) and psycho wrestling coach in “Foxcatcher” (2014).

“Beautiful Boy” is not his best work, his performance feeling strained, though it is nice to see him play dramatic scenes across Ryan (“The Office”) and Tierney (“Liar Liar”), who delivers the film’s most affecting scene choking back minivan tears while tailing her stepson across town.

The real show-stealer is Chalamet, who burst onto the scene last year as the burnout beau in “Lady Bird” (2017) and his Oscar-nominated sexual awakening in “Call Me By Your Name” (2017), in which tears of lost love streamed down his face as he stared into the fireplace.

In “Beautiful Boy,” Chalamet delivers another emotional performance, proving he’s one of our brightest up-and-coming talents. With his hazy eyes and stoner smile, he convinces us that he’s actually high, then comes home with a James Dean angst that is “tearing him apart.”

Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen (“The Broken Circle Breakdown”) presents the drug-induced scenes with synthesized sound design, creating an audial haze hovering over the entire soundtrack. Along the way, we get great song selections, including Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision,” Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings” and John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy,” which Carell sings as a lullaby. Oddly, I think the song was better used in the animated montage of “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” (2014). I wanted more of the song here.

From a script standpoint, Groeningen co-writes with Oscar-nominated screenwriter Luke Davies (“Lion”), hammering out a nonlinear structure that fractures the narrative between past and present, juxtaposing the teenage addict with earlier scenes as an innocent young boy. This daring approach certainly keeps us on our toes, but it sometimes robs momentum with a jumbled feel that no doubt comes from writers trying to adapt two separate memoirs.

We also get hints of a deeper layer that the son’s addiction may be directly related to his father’s own attempts to be hip, even smoking pot with him in the car, but this subtext is never fully explored. Meanwhile, the dialogue doesn’t always feel authentic, coming across a little too sanitary. The repeated cornball use of the phrase “doing drugs” feels more like a lecture at a middle school D-A-R-E program than the way that addicts would actually speak.

When it comes down to it, this is a very hard movie to watch, simply for its heavy subject matter. Chalamet has so many relapses that we grow increasingly frustrated, which I suppose is the point. But unlike knockout experiences, such as “Trainspotting” (1996) or “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), this feels like a two-hour PSA with an abrupt finish and preachy end credits.

The unsatisfying conclusion leaves us feeling about the movie in the same way that we feel about the struggling young addict — our hearts go out to it, but we’re ultimately let down.

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