Adaptations can be hard to pull off — especially when they are based in reality. Adaptations about tragedies that affect millions of people around the globe seem even more difficult to execute. Adapting one movie from two memoirs about substance abuse, a disorder that about 21.5 million Americans struggle with, seems impossible. Yet, director Felix Van Groeningen has done just that. And he’s done a beautiful job.
Van Groeningen’s film “Beautiful Boy” — adapted from David Sheff’s memoir of the same name and Nic Sheff’s “Tweak” — tells two individual stories in conversation with one another. A tale of not just addiction, but of a delicate relationship between father and son, the film moves fluidly between the two narratives. Sometimes, we are watching Nic’s health and his ambition disappear through his father’s eyes. Other times, we are keenly engrossed in the anxiety-filled recklessness of Nic’s drug addiction and his inability to commit to recovery. Whichever character is at the helm in any given part, the story that unfolds is balanced and often unbearable.
More than anything, “Beautiful Boy” is an examination of what it means to really be human. And there would be no story without Nic (Timothée Chalamet), whose journey through addiction began at the age of 11. In his youth, Nic was a bright, creative and successful boy who was eager to impress. On crystal meth, he changed into someone unrecognizable to his family: a thief, a liar, a limp body floating through San Francisco.
This is yet another heavy and impressive role for rising star Chalamet to take on, after last year’s “Call Me by Your Name.” With so many different dynamics and such a variety in the lucidity of his character, Chalamet does not hold back but rather imbues each scene with the most manic and sensitive emotions. When his father confronts him about having relapsed once again, the scene that follows is aggressive and hot, brimming with fear, hatred and guilt. This visceral acting is powered by Chalamet’s unique ability to make Nic’s demons, borne from his addiction and mental illness, very visible.
As Chalamet’s counter, Steve Carell has never seemed so comfortable in a dramatic role as he does playing the fretting, desperate David. In flashback scenes in which we see David and Nic surfing cerulean, frothy waves in Santa Cruz or driving as Nic head-thrashes to some obscure punk music, Carell’s every movement is so authentically paternal. We believe that he is brushing the hair from his son’s eyes not because he was directed to, but because he wants to be just that much closer to his boy.
He is not just the enamored father but the hopeless one as well. Throughout the film, one can trace every moment in which a piece of David’s heart is broken. Every wince, every brow furrow paints the picture of distrust and distress that has consumed him throughout his son’s addiction. Even in Carell’s most collected of scenes, when he is talking to doctors or reassuring his wife, his calm delivery is shadowed by a deep fragility. There is no extravagance in his acting. There is simply the raw, naked portrayal of a father who has no idea where his son is, what Nic is doing or if he is even alive.
In fact, there is no extravagance in any of the film. Van Groeningen exchanges ornamental direction and flashy cinematography for an interwoven, nonlinear narrative set to the landscapes of San Francisco and Los Angeles. What we are witnessing is not a film begging to be watched, nor a film eager to entertain. It is instead an incredibly relevant lesson and a beacon of hope all in one breath.
It is very rare for one’s heart to be broken and then mended in the span of two hours; this is what “Beautiful Boy” achieves. It takes us to the most rigid, unforgiving rock bottom more than once, only to leave us just above it in the end, wondering if the small bit of hope we’ve received will actually last.
For Nic and David, that hope has lasted.
Maisy Menzies is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].