The birth of a child brings with it a world of expectations and potential. Parents cherish every moment, cataloging it with pictures and beloved memories. They balance their excitement to see how their child will turn out as an adult with their enjoyment of the everyday small moments that add up to a lifetime. David Sheff’s (Steve Carell) home is a testament to this. On the wall in his office are pictures of his son Nic (Timothée Chalamet) as he grew up. He frequently thinks back on those earlier days in their lives. He remembers them surfing together. He reminisces on tucking him into bed and singing to him. As the years progress, he cherishes sharing their love of music and even smoking marijuana together as they talk about the future. That future even seems quite bright, with Nic being accepted to all six colleges he applied to with the aspiration of becoming a writer. In an instant, it all changes with the Sheff family hanging on for dear life, trying to put the pieces back together and wondering where it all went wrong.
Director Felix Van Groeningen tells this heart-wrenching story of drug addiction and the long road to recovery in Beautiful Boy, a film based on the true story of David and Nic Sheff. The script is based on two memoirs, one written by David and one by Nic, both combining to explore David’s desperate efforts to save his son from the throes of addiction while showing Nic’s own struggle through recovery and relapse. This is a moving story, one of family, struggle, and the eternal hope of survival. It is also a brutally honest story, one with little to no sugar coating to ease its hard-to-swallow truths. The odds are long. The trauma and pain experienced by Nic is unconscionable. The impact on David, his ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan), his second wife Karen (Maura Tierney), and on Nic’s young half-siblings is immeasurable. There never seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Van Groeningen delivers this emotion in constant gut punches, capturing the distance that has grown between David and Nic in a series of flashbacks. These flashbacks do have the negative side effect of making the film a bit disjointed at times, but the raw emotional power they present is incredible. As David drives around listening to music and trying to find Nic after he ran away from a rehab facility, the film cross cuts between that scene and a flashback of David and Nic listening to the same song years prior, with Nic dancing and singing along in the passenger seat. The present and past are practically overlaid on one another as David drives, jarringly moving from the joy of the past to the rainy bleakness of the present. By the time Nic is found in the pouring rain and pukes in the car, the distance between the hopeful days of yesteryear and the painful struggle of today is presented to the audience. This is a young boy who had the world at his feet. Now, he is only trying to keep his head above water.
Perhaps the toughest pill to swallow in Beautiful Boy is a realization that David has towards the end of the film. By this time, Nic has relapsed. He had been sober for 14 months, removing himself from the environment that led to his methamphetamine addiction and he has even graduated from college. Yet now he is deep in addiction again. He has moved from stealing $8 from his little brother to breaking into the family home, looking for anything he can sell to buy his next fix. David, in defeat, removes the pictures of young Nic from the wall and packs them up. On the phone, he tells Vicki that he is done. They cannot help Nic, nor should they continue to kill themselves trying. This is a family that has been through the ringer over the years, forced to watch their son change into a hollow shell of his former self. Now, they must face the fact that they cannot save him. As parents, that is all they ever wanted. David studied drugs, visiting doctors all over the country to understand. Vicki opened her home to her son so that he could go to rehab, working with him and his sponsor Spencer (Andre Royo) to keep him on the right path. Though Nic was never even her son, Karen opened her heart to him and tried her hardest to assist David in saving him. Yet, it was never enough. It was never going to be enough. The only person who could save Nic was Nic and, in that moment, he did not want to be saved.
In this, Beautiful Boy never shies away from the dark corners of drug addiction. Van Groeningen shows the streets where drugs are bought and sold. Nic is shown injecting himself in his dorm or while hanging out with his equally addicted girlfriend Lauren (Kaitlyn Dever). He watches Lauren overdose, desperately trying to save her. Later, he overdoses on a bathroom floor of a restaurant. While Beautiful Boy’s focus is on the family and showing the toll it takes on them, Nic’s story is never shorted and every time he gives into temptation, it hurts. As he is shown hanging out with his younger siblings or succeeding at school, one feels the hope start to return, only to watch him fall right back into the clutches of drug addiction once more. It is a vicious cycle, one that he struggles with for years and one that Van Groeningen shows in all of its unpleasant detail.
At the heart of this film is its terrific cast. Timothée Chalamet delivers a tremendous performance, disappearing into the role of Nic and capturing every ounce of his internal pain. This is not a kid who wants to be addicted to drugs, but rather one who has no idea how to stop, and has no willingness to face the demons of his mind. He is a soul in conflict, desperate to cling onto sobriety but afraid of what that brings, a facet of his character that Chalamet excels in conveying. Though Chalamet looms large over the film, Steve Carell, Amy Ryan, and Maura Tierney nonetheless all stand tall alongside him. Carell is able to capture the tranquil, everyday nature of David that is so upset by this unexpected crisis. The chemistry between Chalamet and Carell, who play off of one another so well in face-to-face conversations, is terrific. They truly feel like a true father and son, desperate to get back to what they had but uncertain on the steps required to take them there. The pain captured by both of them feels so real that it is hard not to be moved by their performances. Ryan and Tierney similarly capture this feeling, and though neither are given nearly as much screen time as Carell or Chalamet, they make the most of what they receive.
Where Beautiful Boy falters is in Van Groeningen’s tendency to take the story too far into melodrama. One particularly sentimental scene watches as David packs his bags to find Nic; another captures a rather forced chase between Karen and Nic. Beautiful Boy is a painfully realistic film, one with an open, beating heart for the world to see and a willingness to let its characters probe the conflicts within these characters. Yet, Van Groeningen too often betrays this honesty with these more blunt scenes. As a result, it often feel a bit too melodramatic and not nearly as cinematic as it should be, ultimately bleeding it of some of its emotional impact.
Nonetheless, Beautiful Boy manages to be a deeply affecting work that successfully molds together two memoirs into one tragic look at drug addiction and rehab. Through the story of David and Nic, Beautiful Boy is able to at least somewhat illuminate the struggle and horror of addiction that is affecting far more people than just the Sheff family. With terrific acting and strong direction, Beautiful Boy may be flawed but it is a successfully tearjerking rallying cry for everyone to address this epidemic before more lives are ruined.