We enter into the world of “Beautiful Boy” through an unexpected, restrictive angle of view. We see a lone figure in a leather chair. He faces the camera, staring ahead, and begins to ask an offscreen presence for advice. The audience cannot see who he is addressing, and as we stare at the man before us, we struggle to catch up, and we try to anticipate his questions. He explains that he has come for advice not in his capacity as a reporter, but in his capacity as a father–a father of a son struggling with crystal meth addiction. Here, we learn that we are out of our depth. How can we, the audience, possibly provide him with answers?
Felix Van Groeningen’s newest film is based on two memoirs by the father and son pair David and Nic Sheff. The film stars Steve Carell as the frustrated and confused David Sheff, a reporter who searches for a way to help his son overcome addiction. The energetic and sensitive Timothée Chalamet stars as Nic Sheff, a promising high school graduate who becomes tortured by his dependence on substances. Carell and Chalamet have strong chemistry, and their relationship develops through intimate conversations and touching imagery.
The film follows both father and son, but largely focuses on David Sheff and his quest to answer the question: Why?
Nic is artistically inclined, smart, a good reader, a loving son, and a proud older brother. Yet, he expresses a desire to escape “everyday boring reality” by experimenting with drugs. We aren’t given much more explanation than the revelation of this innocent desire. Before the audience and Nic’s father understand what is going on, Nic is already deeply embroiled in addiction. Just as in the opening scene, we are left asking, “Why has this happened?”
In attempt to find an answer, the film glides through time with music blaring. Interspersed between scenes of real time devastation and harsh depictions of drug use, we see montages of Nic as a child and happy scenes of father and son. Music, a common interest for the pair, links past and present. The soundtrack is full of recognizable songs, and it’s a diverse spread–Perry Cuomo, John Lennon, David Bowie, and Nirvana. Each song reminds David of memories with his son.
Guided by sound and vibrant color, we meander through Nic and David’s lives, searching for some answer to David’s questions. As the film frantically cuts between past and present, it becomes increasingly obvious that David’s memories of his son are unable to provide him with answers. Perhaps these answers are nowhere to be found. The film is shot so beautifully, each scene so tight and imagistically compact, that it’s easy to become drawn in just by its visual allure. As we see Nic recover and relapse, the viewer is thrown from images of the grime of addiction to scenes of California nature in all its verdant glory. We are swept along by the spell of the imagery.
Just as with the opening scene where we are denied access to the man with whom David speaks, by the end of the film, it feels as if we are denied something again. The film cannot provide answers to David’s questions. Perhaps his questions are unanswerable–fine–but it seems as if on some level the film has failed to live up to its promises.
The very characters in the film seem to be aware of this problem. They, too, know about the failures of explanatory language. In one scene, David Sheff enters his son’s room to find Nic sitting on the floor, drawing in a journal with heavy music blaring in the background. David notices his son’s distress and tries to make him feel better. He offers up some trite statement about teenage angst, to which Nic expresses vague annoyance. With a grimace, Nic objects to his father’s capitulation to meaningless sentimental language. We see his annoyance at David’s attempt to provide palliative words. Later on, at a point in Nic’s recovery, we see him parrot back this same kind of language, language that provides a soothing but bland verbal answer to a complex problem. Yet, soon after this scene, Nic relapses, and his rhetoric collapses.
In its musings on rhetoric and the human impulse to construct verbal responses to our problems, “Beautiful Boy” is remarkably realistic. But, just as the characters can’t formulate their answers, the film struggles to find its voice, becoming caught up in sweeping visuals. It seems as if “Beautiful Boy” is distracted by its own beauty.
Van Groeningen’s film leaves us with images to consider, but it brings us right back where we started, united with David Sheff in joint frustration and bewilderment.