Do “based on a true story” addiction dramas bum you out? My guess is you’ll still be moved by Beautiful Boy — an emotional workout that’s too powerful to resist. Steve Carell, proving again he’s as skilled at drama as he is in comedy, brings a fiercely moving core to the role of David Sheff, a journalist trying to cope with the meth addiction of his teenage son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet). The script draws on memoirs from both father and son, and the dual perspective gives the film its devastating impact. Sure, Nic is addicted — but David is just as addicted to saving him. On the surface, Nic seems to be leading the good life In San Francisco’s Bay area with his father and his second wife Karen (Maura Tierney), showing a genuine fondness for their two children. But addicts make adept liars, and David’s calls to Los Angeles to confer with Nic’s mother, Vicki (Amy Ryan), reveal a divorce tension you can cut with a knife.
What this movie gets right, as opposed to most drug dramas, is that addiction isn’t always a reaction to real-life traumas. Nic explains that he just likes the way meth makes him feel. The highs are worth the lows. Still, the film is unsparing in showing Nic’s physical and moral deterioration. His involvement with another addict, Lauren (Kaitlyn Dever), almost leads them both to mutual destruction. And yet all of Nic’s attempts at rehab, at attending college, at connecting again as a caring human being to people he once called his family, go up in the urgent need for another fix.
The cycle of recovery to relapse and back again is rendered with startling immediacy. In his first American film, Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) — operating from a perhaps too schematic script by Luke Davies — proves he knows how to work an audience over. This movie really puts you through a wringer. But it’s the two leads who, thanks to their astonishing, ripped-from-the-guts performances, make this movie a standout. Chalamet’s withdrawal scene alone should put the Call Me by Your Name Oscar-nominee back in the awards race. And Carell lets us feel the pain of a parent driven to the point of giving up. It’s a tough, achingly tender film that refuses to trade in false hopes or cheap sentiment. That truth is what makes Beautiful Boy hard to take and impossible to forget.