Review: Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy is an affecting drama about the hardships of substance abuse even though its execution falters into emotionally manipulative territory.

Announcing himself with his ability to convey restrained emotional complexity and internal suffering that rivals even the most esteemed of his peers,  Timothee Chalamet became a revelation with Call Me By Your Name. Less than a year later, he stars in yet another emotional drama (and hopeful Oscar contender)  in Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy. Here he manages to display the same level of emotional maturity that had previously propelled him onto audience radars (and awards contention) but that just might not be enough this time around.

Based on the memoirs of David Sheff (played by Steve Carell) and his son Nic (played by Chalamet) Beautiful Boy traces Nic’s struggles with drug addiction, the effects it had on his family and their relationship, and the cycle of recovery and relapse that he, as well as many other users, have dealt with. A topic of discussion that is inherently personal and emotional, the material will strike a chord for anyone who has ever experienced or known someone who has experienced, this same struggle. While the film does feel earnest in its attempts to accurately portray that struggle in a way that will emotionally connect to audiences, its efforts come across as more schmaltzy and manipulative than genuine.

Check out the trailer for Beautiful Boy above

Chalamet even prior to his CMBYN breakout had proven to possess a deep emotional acuity of an actor many years his senior. Beautiful Boy provides him with another opportunity to showcase his ability to inhabit an emotionally tortured young soul with grace and nuance that exceeds his age and experience. Whether it be a loud outburst or even just through a single tear, Chalamet conveys the pain of Nic’s journey and the shame that he feels for both himself and for what he’s putting his family through, in a profoundly humane way. It might still be a longshot to predict a Best Supporting Actor nomination but it still remains this film’s best chance of showing up at the Oscars in any capacity.

Carell, on the other hand, continues his successful transition from broad comedic performer to commendable dramatic actor. His performance in Beautiful Boy certainly allows for him to delve into deeper dramatic ranges than he has previously, however it is still clear that there are certain realms of serious drama that are still beyond his abilities and still does not come across as believable in. Most impressively, the numerous scenes in which Carell is required to deliver subdued, restrained personal emotion, hold back tears, or convey intimate heartbreak without even a word of dialogue are his most effective. His role as the stern, yet sensitive father trying to do the best for his son flies directly against the typical characters he plays yet he manages to thrive in these quieter more contemplative moments. It is in the scenes where he needs to extend his range beyond this – where he needs to yell or express extreme anger – that he feels the most out of his element, delivering unintentionally comedic lines reads that feel more in line with his more roles in The Office or The 40-Year-Old Virgin. 

Beautiful Boy Review Still 2
Chalamet (left) and Carell (right) share a strong chemistry that lends itself to solid performances 

Alongside attempting to portray drug abuse in a realistic manner, the film feels as if its primary mission is to try and make you cry in whatever ways it can. The film is riddled with childhood flashbacks and sappy musical montages that try to paint an authentic picture of David and Nic’s familial relationship, which the film didn’t need in order to convey that to us because the actors’ immediate chemistry with each other already accomplishes that. The additional artifice of these hoaky filmmaking conventions only serves to undercut the genuine emotion on display from these actors.

“The additional artifice of hoaky filmmaking conventions only serves to undercut the genuine emotion on display from these actors.”

The film does, however, have a strong sense of perspective as this relationship unfolds. The majority of the first half is told from the perspective of David as he’s trying to understand and help his son through his rehabilitation, and the manner through which the film reveals certain information, puts the viewer into the position of the concerned parent who’s just been lied to or betrayed by the son that they thought they could trust. In that area, the film’s stylistic techniques are efficiently utilized in order to place you into the character’s perspectives and understand the emotions that they are experiencing, but it also attempts other directorial choices that unfortunately detract from the impact that the film intends to have. 

Amongst its endless arsenal of emotionally manipulative tactics is the ever-present inclusion of overbearing music selections, which feel less naturally woven into the drama and the tone of the scene, and more like they dictate how the audience is supposed to feel. Particularly because most of the music used in the film are all pre-existing licensed songs, usually with lyrics and tones that are on-the-nose and specific to the situation happening on screen, which make their inclusions feel even more forceful and overbearing. It almost begs the question of whether it would have had a stronger resonance to completely remove the music entirely and to allow the scene to play out naturally without any musical accompaniment.

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At times emotionally manipulative, Beautiful Boy is nonetheless an affecting drama

While its Oscar chances remain slim, and will most likely decrease as the year comes to an end, Beautiful Boy is still an affecting enough drama about the hardships of substance abuse, and the effects that it places on a family, even if its manners of presenting it feel closer in line to a Hallmark Channel original movie. It’s bound to strike an emotional chord with certain viewers, particularly if this subject matter personally hits close to home with someone’s specific experiences, in which case, it’s depiction in the film might prove to feel all too uncomfortably familiar in ways that might be tough to revisit.

SUMMARY

+ Father/son relationship between Carell and Chalamet + Honest intentions - Overly sappy and sentimental - Overbearing music selections
Mike Pisacano
Mike Pisacanohttp://www.beforethecyborgs.com
Mike is a contributing writer for Before the Cyborgs. A journalism graduate from SUNY Purchase, he has a passion for watching films and writing criticism. Follow him on Letterboxd (mike_pisacano) where you can keep track of his film watching habits

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