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Despite Terrific Performances, Things Turn Ugly in Addiction Saga Beautiful Boy

This harrowing true-life drama about drug abuse, relapse, and recovery focuses on the impact of a teenager's substance abuse on his otherwise well-adjusted family.
By Todd Jorgenson |

More than just injecting needles or popping pills, Beautiful Boy makes a valiant effort to probe the psychology of drug addiction.

In this harrowing true-life drama about misplaced guilt, adolescent angst, and fractured families, however, such ambition requires more nuance than this melodramatic and narrowly focused saga provides.

The story takes place in northern California, where author David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his teenage son Nic (Timothee Chalamet) live in an upscale house with David’s second wife (Maura Tierney) and two younger children.

Their family seems happy enough on the surface, except that Nic’s substance abuse has spiraled out of control. His addiction to crystal meth has kept him from going to college, which in turn strains the relationship between father and son, the former of which seems more concerned with the cause rather than the solution.

The ensuing cycle of relapse and recovery involves Nic’s mother (Amy Ryan) and a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor (Andre Royo) who — along with a frustrated David — oversee his stays in rehab facilities and halfway houses, hoping for a commitment to sobriety that might never come.

In his English language debut, Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) admirably takes on tricky material that must feel authentic throughout to achieve the desired heart-tugging resonance.

For the first hour or so, it largely succeeds, thanks in large part to committed performances by Carell and Chalamet that effectively balance the relentless heartbreak with a glimmer of hope.

The film, which is based on separate memoirs by real-life father and son, presents familiar subject matter from a fresh perspective, focusing more on the effects of Nic’s struggles on his family, whose anguish and coping mechanisms offer a window for the audience.

Beautiful Boy depicts an average, well-adjusted family, digging beneath that surface for the motives behind Nic’s substance abuse, which aren’t always clear-cut or well-defined. In other words, these stories aren’t confined to certain demographics.

It stumbles in the third act, when a couple of significant narrative twists feel forced and manipulative, trying to jerk tears that don’t feel justified. Those delicate missteps compromise the established emotional connection.

The film has honest intentions about communicating the dangers of addiction in intimate detail, and conveying the frustration and hopelessness that goes with recovery. Still, in this case, the powerful message takes on a predictable repetition.

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