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Drug abuse tale Beautiful Boy yearns to be an important film

But good intentions can’t compensate for lacklustre delivery in director Felix Van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy.

Beautiful Boy yearns to be an important film. It’s a weighty family saga based on a pair of memoirs from journalist David Sheff and his son, Nic, both released in 2008. They explored two sides of drug addiction: Nic’s decline into meth dependency and self-destruction, and David’s attempts to pull him back from the brink.

It’s an important subject. But Beautiful Boy, not for want of trying, fails to land much of an emotional blow.

It’s mostly a problem of perspective. Charismatic, intelligent – indeed, beautiful – Nic (Timothée Chalamet) is largely seen through the eyes of his father (Steve Carell): a carefree teenager who becomes a malignant cancer at the heart of the family.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Just as he did in the exquisite Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet throws himself headlong into the role, but Nic’s descent happens largely unseen. Beautiful Boy dares not venture far into Nic’s memoir, Tweak, laced as it is with accounts of prostitution and dealing.

Indeed, the chief reason for David’s upset is not the debauchery of his son’s actions, but that he failed to live up to his expectations. As parents say: not angry, just disappointed.

Carell can certainly play reserved, put-upon, bedraggled. However, the moments demanding explosions of exasperation seem beyond him. His frustrated cries or temper flare-ups come off as whiny, indignant and inauthentic.

What also eludes the story is a reason for Nic’s compulsion. He passes through a phase of liking the infamously addled writer Charles Bukowski, howls along to Nirvana, keeps a copy of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned. Is it a kind of misplaced romanticism? All he can muster when pressed is that meth “takes the edge off stupid everyday reality”. That’s the closest we get to an explanation, provoking the more troubling thought that addiction needs no trigger, no trauma.

As a pattern of relapse-recovery-relapse emerges, the film uses music as a crutch, or perhaps a prompt, pointing the way to how we’re supposed to feel. The soundtrack swells and we’re supposed to brace ourselves for the welling tears. By the time we hear Neil Young’s Heart of Gold (“I wanna live, I wanna give”), though, the rush has already worn off. It leaves you with a hollow feeling and a dissatisfied comedown.

Video: Amazon Studios

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

This article was first published in the December 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.