Beautiful Boy (London Film Festival) (2019) (Review)

Beautiful Boy is seemingly tailor-made for award season: a weepy, real-life drama about a family struggling with the meth addiction of one, adapted from the biographies of the father and son at the heart of the story. Directed by Felix van Groeningen and starring Steve Carell alongside Hollywood's new 'it' boy, Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy digs deep to deliver a tender and sympathetic exploration of the effects of drug addiction on not only the individual but their wider families - but it lacks a strong artistic voice to reach the peak of its potential.

Beautiful Boy chronicles the meth addiction and recovery of Nic Sheff (Chalamet), told through the eyes of his father David (Carell), as he tries to work out how best to handle the situation and support his son throughout his rises and relapse. Adapted from David and Nic's memoirs - "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction" and "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines" - it provides an authentic insight into the disease and the emotional strain it places on those surrounding the epicentre.

A drug addict's spiral into self-destruction is a difficult thing to translate onto the big screen; it's a cycle, sometimes seemingly endless, and hardly feeds itself into an exciting cinematic experience. However, approached with empathy and with heart running its core, Beautiful Boy's script - written by Luke Davies and Groeningen - strikes an appropriate conbination. It explores the volatility of recovery, tinging the perceived, crushing hopelessness with a glimmer of optimism that uplifts following the film's darkest moments, where it remains largely unflinching in its depiction of the horrors of drug dependency. It seeks to emphasise the importance of family in aiding rehabilitation and an epilogue justifies the need to comprehend the subject matter and its messages. Beautiful Boy feels like a truly urgent piece of filmmaking, enhanced by those two outstanding central performances.

Timothée Chalamet, fresh from his Call Me By Your Name success, confirms that his extraordinary performance in that Oscar-nominated, fan-favourite was no fluke. Here he registers a stirring, impassioned performance that fully embodies Nic with tremendous aplomb. He's angry and frustrated, fragile and exhausted, with Chalamet documenting the unpredictable nature of a user with tremendous perspective; there is light and shade and he considers the opposing tones of his performance so very effectively. It's an impeccable turn, although one that would benefit from a makeup-enhanced transformation to really nail the message home.

Steve Carell is similarly impressive as Nic's father, David, showcasing a strong dramatic performance carefully tinged with a humour that takes the edge off following some of the more intense scenes without ever underwriting them. Guiding the audience through a father's pain and suffering, he yields a terrific understanding of a families' despair as their son slips further from them, balancing the desperation to help with the devastation of being unable to. At times very internalised, Carell is most effective when performing opposite Chalamet, who immediately helps hasten the reaction - particularly during film's emotionally-obliterating moment set in a diner. The pair forms an extraordinary, believable chemistry that enhances the father-son dynamic, giving these crucial sequences the gravity they need and deserve.

Felix van Groeningen's direction is functional but the film is in need of a stronger artistic voice to reach its full potential. It lacks flair and while that may be in order to avoid glamorising something it is clearly attempting to vilify, the film's aesthetics are still too subtle, absent anything in the way of identity: it's difficult to pinpoint what Groeningen brings to the film that couldn't have been achieved by any other director to tackle this project. He doesn't leave too strong a mark on Beautiful Boy and in the hands of a more confident director, it could have been elevated to even higher, sturdier ground.

On top of this, the film often struggles with its pacing. Even accepting that the repetitive cycle of events is part and parcel of a story about addiction, the decision to incorporate a plethora of flashbacks at regular intervals throughout the film cause an unsteady back-and-forth. These moments absolutely enhance our understanding of our lead's relationship but create a number of 'false endings' that only seek to lengthen the runtime. The editing is not the smoothest and it's clear that the filmmakers weren't quite sure how to approach the non-linear timeline, causing a couple of bumps in the round every now and then that dilute the film's impact.

But despite its flaws, Beautiful Boy is a predominantly moving and emotionally-powerful experience. Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell sell the film for all its worth, with two incredibly captivating, powerhouse performances that overcome a handful of the flaws found within the direction and screenplay. Interlaced with a heartfelt tenderness that allows the film to succeed as an authentic and potent exploration of the father-and-son relationship in a time of difficulty, it makes for a sincere piece whose heart is in the right place. Bound to stir a few tears, if not completely switch on the waterworks, Beautiful Boy is a beautiful piece of film worthy of your time and attention.

Summary: Beautiful Boy has its heart in the right place and while a muted approach lessens the emotional potency somewhat, it nevertheless delivers a tender, poignant exploration of drug addiction, with two extraordinary performances from Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet rendering it worthwhile in the face of its flaws.