MOVIE REVIEW: Beautiful Boy

(Image by Francois Duhamel and courtesy of Amazon Studios via

(Image by Francois Duhamel and courtesy of Amazon Studios via

Opening Night special presentation of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival


Four years ago, a columnist on the public service website Sober Nation ranked a list of the ten best movies about drug addiction and alcoholism. From Half Baked to Requiem for a Dream, all are fine films and memorable cautionary tales in their own right, but there is one difference-making quality the new drama Beautiful Boy champions that those hallowed ten do not: a full scope of personal history. Felix Van Groeningen’s film, the opening night headliner of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival, can take the roughest of present circumstances and remind you in a stream of flashbacks that the troubled subject wasn’t always that way.

The root of that effective power comes out in a familiar song. The film and one of the memoirs it is based on share their titles and inspirational center from the 1980 John Lennon favorite off his Double Fantasy album. The former Beatles co-founder wrote the flighty tune to comfort his own young son. Its lyrics speak of calmed fears, departed monsters, better days, and an ever-present father eager to witness his son come of age. What Lennon dreamed about with those words was shared by author David Sheff, played by Academy Award nominee Steve Carell, as he raised his own son Nic long before substance abuse and a myriad of addictions would consume the young man he wished he could console.

Beautiful Boy is as simple as capturing a man’s conscious memories of both happier times and missed opportunities as they are triggered by defeat staring at him in the face. At every dark turn of this engrossing family drama, David’s mind races to remember the little boy and pre-teen who came before the broken adult now embodied by Call Me By Your Name Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet. The effect is soul-shattering. Brimming with exasperating emotions and jarring levels of empathetic fears, experience the film that could and should top a rewritten list of those best from Sober Nation.

LESSON #1: THE UNREMOVABLE STRESS OF WORRIED PARENTS — Carell’s David opens as an at-his-wits-end father speaking with The New York Times Magazine to admit overmatched ignorance and ask a doctor (a long-lost Timothy Hutton) for help understanding what crystal meth is doing to his son and what he can do to help him. He is the type of guy checking missing persons reports, hospital John Doe declarations, and every alley and dumpster in the not-so-nice parts of his nearby San Francisco looking for his errant son. David is joined in worry by his second wife Karen (the best movie material Maura Tierney has received in years) and Nic’s biological mother Vicki (Gone Baby Gone Oscar nominee Amy Ryan). That worry never goes away.

Beautiful Boy hops capriciously between poignant pastimes and current calamities to chronicle years in the experiences of David and Nic Sheff. Already an anxious kid to many degrees, Nic is the repressed product of divorce and is a progressive sponge for art as he gives college away from home a try. What begins as casual self-medicating edge-removers like marijuana and alcohol escalates to pills, heroin, cocaine, and eventually crystal meth. Over time, the nerve damage, compulsion, and multiplied anxiety turns Nic into a derelict cesspool of ticks. His near irrecoverable state is a sledgehammer of a diagnosis and a wake-up call to his father.

LESSON #2: SEE THE SIGNS — The key trigger for Nic was the fear of disappointment, which was something David may or may not have been the best at calming instead of feeding. Shame is not helpful when the cry in return is “be proud of me.” Even beyond that core, as reflected in those sidebar trips down memory lane, the fearful precursors were there. They all might not answer the “why” questions or could have been entirely corrected, but they were present and observable.

LESSON #3: RELAPSE IS PART OF RECOVERY — There are no automatic fixes or silver bullets. The vicious cycle of progress and defeat tumbles the Sheff family through nearly two decades in this film chronicle. Each peak brightens so much hope while each valley gets deeper and darker with . The tumultuous pattern of relapse and recovery (we see three such segments from the eight the real-life Nic had endured) tumbles the Sheff family for years until a powerless decision point comes when the help can’t help anymore.

Every sparked argument, exasperated sigh, eye-to-eye conversation, bold-faced lie, shared hug, and shed tear is a heart-crusher in Beautiful Boy. Felix Van Groeningen, a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nominee for The Broken Circle Breakdown collaborated with Luke Davies, a fellow Oscar nominee as the screenwriter of Lion, to blend David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction and Nic Sheff’s Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines into this single film. Skewing towards the more expansive arc of the father more than the repetitive failures of the son, the Belgian and the Aussie have fashioned a touchingly stout drama that is braver than most films on the subject. One of the best films you will ever see examining the breadth of drug addiction is right here peeling away the California glow with haunting truths, some set to the haunting vocals of Perry Como.

That said, the subject matter is as polarizing as it is timely. This is not your typical feel-good factory product. Beautiful Boy is bracingly honest with its turns and barriers built by emotional wallop. The remarkable performances of Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet deserve the credit for that impact. Continuing to improve since Foxcatcher, Carell maximizes his sorrowful eyes and morose posture to exude frustration and grief. Chalamet unravels and implodes with neurotic brilliance to prove he is not a one-and-a-half trick pony after Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird. The many scenes they share together, like that diner clip the marketing keeps showing, absorb every minute with seared sentiment. You’ll be seeing that clip and more like them again on a certain awards show happening the night of February 24th next year.