Felix van Groeningen, 2018, USA
screenplay: Lucas Davies & Felix van Groeningen
Although based on both the memoirs of David and Nic Sheff – ‘Beautiful Boy’ and ‘Tweak’ respectively – Groeningen’s adaptation, written with LukeDavies, tilts more towards the father, making this mainly a paternal viewpoint of a son’s addiction.
There is a streak of obviousness in ‘Beautiful Boy’ where it uses a Notebook of Exposition or is too on-the-nose with the song choices, but just like it’s choice of Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’, it is equally sentimental and clear-headed and ultimately moving. It is not working in abstraction or even subtlety, but this is where the aesthetic stops it falling into addiction-of-the-week TV movie. The mosaic of memories and incidents undermine much of the sense of cliché to allow the performances and mood to dominate. And dominate they do: Colin Farrel and Timothée Chalamet are both excellent. Chalamet is a fine physical actor which reaps rewards when he is overdosing in a toilet. Farrel is more quietly affecting in his confusion and determination to support his son, excelling when he cracks up and cries.
Josephine Livingstone finds ‘Beautiful Boy’ lacking as an expression of the truth of addiction: “Homelessness isn’t Timothée Chalamet draped handsomely across a diner; it’s contemptuous glances and shame.” For such films, Livingstone points out, the devastating effects of drugs is just a starting point for family drama and dysfunction, and that’s true. But the slight remove from the details of Nic’s experience meant that I never felt his tale or that druggy miserablism were predominant: that is, it’s the father-son dynamic as the family looks on baffled and helpless that drives the feeling rather than a grim truth of addiction. That is, this isn’t ‘Christiane F.’ or a film that casts the addict as an anti-hero, rebelling against the tedium and hypocrisy of the mainstream. And his problems cannot be located in social context: Nic is seemingly just as confounded by himself as everyone else: he’s a child of privilege from a split but loving home and can go back to that at any time, but drugs have a solid grip on him.
There may not be detailed insight to crack addiction but the evocation of its effect on a family feels sincere enough. You may find, suddenly and unexpectedly, that it has tapped into real feeling. I certainly abruptly felt that I had been truly stirred at something incidental about halfway through rather than an obvious emotional moment, because I had been affected by the culmination of the overall experience. Particular note for the sound design and choice of songs that guide and glide over the collage and tonal shifts like stream-of-consciousness. There’s nothing new here, but it reaches genuine feeling in its pot pourri of colourfully photographed vignettes that make it an but undeniably emotional experience, whatever flaws it may have.