The world of cinema loves to tackle the devastating effects of substance addiction. The life and times of a drug addict provide weighty fodder for any potential screenplay, particularly those which also seek to portray an addict’s loved ones, as they watch helplessly from the sidelines. In writer/director Felix van Groeningen‘s compelling but frustrating Beautiful Boy, the tale is mostly told from the perspective of a beleaguered father, rather than the titular addict himself.

It’s a curious twist on this all-too-familiar tale, and one likely being lived by thousands of distressed family members in America and around the globe. In that regard, Beautiful Boy is a film that will resonate hardest with parents, as they instantly empathise with the crippling anxiety parenthood so often brings. Likewise with those who’ve experienced addiction, either first or secondhand. But this harrowing narrative is somewhat mishandled by a zig-zagging time structure that threatens to damage the overall impact of this potentially poignant and timely piece.

Based on the separate memoirs of both father and son, Beautiful Boy is the true-life story of noted entertainment journalist and author David Sheff (Steve Carell, further cementing his status as a terrific dramatic performer) and his teenage son, Nic (another impressive turn from young Timothée Chalamet). The pair lives with David’s second wife, Karen (an underused Maura Tierney) and their two young children in Marin County, an affluent town in the San Francisco Bay area.

Nic’s mother and David’s first wife, Vicki (an equally underused Amy Ryan) lives in Los Angeles, with David taking sole custody of their son since their bitter divorce. Phone calls between the divorced parents suggest a fractured relationship, confounded by the fact Nic hasn’t been visiting his mother during summer break like he once did. Nic is an intelligent, promising 18-year-old with a bright future before him. He’s been accepted to all six colleges he applied for, making David relentlessly proud. He’s handsome, charming, and completely idolised by his two younger half-siblings.

He loves poetry, music, and surfing with his Dad. He’s the textbook “good kid” any parent would love to have. But something is missing. A yearning sense of alternate joys and freeing release leads him to drugs. After years of experimentation with “just a little bit” of marijuana, ecstasy, and cocaine, Nic finds his ultimate rush with crystal meth. At first, he’s a functioning addict, managing to hide his addiction from his doting father. But meth addiction is not something one can conceal for long, and David soon realises something is terribly wrong with his son.

Approaching his son’s addiction with a journalistic and methodical mindset, David finds his own addiction of sorts, becoming entirely obsessed with understanding this disease and how to save his son from it. But it’s a problem he cannot solve. It’s a realisation this father must eventually accept, as he achingly watches his son suffering through a cycle of highs, lows, rehab visits, painful relapses, and, finally, hitting absolute rock bottom.

This narrative, co-written by Luke Davies who has tackled addiction previously in 2006’s Candy, is presented in a rather jarring fashion, with the film constantly flipping back and forth between past and present. There’s a necessary narrative effect to learning where Nic came from and how he arrived at this low point, providing the character with a deep backstory and understanding of his close relationship with his father. When presented in this fashion, however, they pull an audience right out of the moment, losing all emotional momentum and damaging the film’s pace. It’s an unnecessary distraction and detraction in the film’s first two acts that’s thankfully released for the final third.

What this character history does provide is the revelation drug addiction is not always a reaction to one’s life or an escape from past misfortunes. Besides his parent’s divorce, Nic has experienced a rather idyllic life. There’s no lightbulb moment from his childhood or teenage years to provide the catalyst for his spiral into drug addiction. For a lot of people, there is no reason for meth addiction besides the high it (initially) provides. It’s decidedly refreshing to see a film keenly understand there is often no tangible motivation behind substance abuse.

While the focus of Beautiful Boy is undoubtedly on the destruction Nic is causing to himself, there’s also a concerted effort to capture the damage to the lives of those around him. David sees himself as his son’s saviour, foolishly believing loving Nic is enough to place him on the road to recovery. He constantly grapples with attempting to understand his son’s behaviour, even going so far as to shockingly try a small amount of meth for himself (a narrative point which is strangely left unexplored). His calm demeanour occasionally gives way, exploding in frustration at the chaos his son is selfishly putting his family through. And the reach of Nic’s addiction really hits home when his younger step-brother, Jasper (Christian Convery) agonisingly asks his mother, “Is Nic doing drugs again?”

Carell is wonderful as the desperate father undergoing his own personal hell, as he hopelessly attempts to put everything back in place. It’s a deeply sensitive and emotional performance that will ring true for any parent or guardian. You feel his frustration and pain with every chaotic moment David is experiencing, particularly when he arrives at the shattering moment of accepting defeat. The sense of David having no control over his son’s addiction is painful to watch, but it’s a powerhouse performance from Carell that leads this film with both strength and vulnerability.

The stand-out is unsurprisingly Chalamet, who is gifted yet another amazing opportunity to shine. Running the full gambit of emotions, Chalamet is affecting and moving, and, naturally, a little frustrating, at times. Much like David, we can’t help but be disappointed by Nic’s seemingly foolish decisions. But Chalamet finds the motivation and reasoning behind his character’s baffling choices, gifting us a performance that’s as empathetic as it is devastating. His interactions with Carell are a marvel to watch (especially one gut-wrenching phone conversation), and their relationship is as powerful in its quiet moments as it is in their confrontations. For my money, Chalamet has one hand firmly on that Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

While van Groeningen takes his film to some dark places, you can’t shake the feeling it could have gone much darker. Chalamet’s physical appearance barely alters (although his track-marked arm is eventually revealed for shock value) and several unsettling moments from Nic Sheff’s memoir are strangely omitted. When compared to something as brutal as Requiem For a DreamBeautiful Boy appears hesitant to travel a similar path, despite hitting several similar narrative beats. That’s not to say this film is an easy watch. It’s not. But it seems to be holding too much back to its own detriment.

What Beautiful Boy does get right is its refusal to provide easy explanations or solutions to drug addiction. It knows there is no such thing, and shies away from empty hope or happy endings. That message is almost lost in its unnecessary non-linear structure, but Carell and Chalamet’s performances save this film from its own misgivings. And the film’s gripping and heartbreaking final act is sensational cinema, particular the closing shot, which hits hard and haunts you long after the credits. A slightly missed opportunity to create something truly great, Beautiful Boy is still an earnest and moving portrayal of a crisis gripping so, so many.

Distributor: Transmission
Cast: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Ryan, Timothy Hutton
Director: Felix van Groeningen
Screenplay: Felix van Groeningen, Luke Davies
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Cinematography: Ruben Impens
Production Design: Ethan Tobman
Editor: Nico Leunen
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Date: 25th October 2018 (Australia)