Relapse is part of recovery. That's what one doctor in "Beautiful Boy " tells David Sheff (Steve Carell), the distraught father of a teenage son, Nic (Timothee Chalamet), who has been dabbling in alcohol, weed, cocaine, heroin and crystal meth, and has become an addict.
He disappears for nights on end from his father's idyllic home in the woods outside of San Francisco which he shares with a stepmother, Karen (Maura Tierney), and his two very young step-siblings. He steals his little sister's savings ($8). He lies. He hurts everyone around him. He goes to rehab. He seems to be turning over a new leaf. And then he starts the cycle all over again.
"Beautiful Boy" is an honest portrait of how addiction affects families and how it's not something that can be wrapped up and packaged into a neat and tidy narrative. It's ugly and messy, with moments of grace and hope, but mostly despair. The film is based on a pair of memoirs, one by Nic Sheff and one by David Sheff, and directed by Belgian filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen in his English language debut. This may be depicting a family's story in the recent past, but there is hardly a more timely subject matter to explore.
Van Groeningen directs the melded stories in an unconventional and often disorienting way, jumping back and forward in time with abandon and not a lot of establishing context. Some jumps make sense, like David, sitting in a cafe and waiting for his grown son to meet him after a bender, and remembering sitting at that same table years ago with Nic as a much younger child and goofing around trying to speak Klingon to one another. Others are just confusing. Is Nic returning after a semester in college, you wonder? Did he graduate? When, exactly, does he smoke pot with his father? Before or after he confesses to trying meth?
Perhaps disorientation is the point, a commentary on life and jumbled memories, but for the viewer it can be trying at times. The editing choices can make this film seem occasionally like one extended montage or lovely-looking music video. Van Groeningen also tends to favor flashbacks to various stages of Nic's pre-teen childhood as David looks adoringly on his sweet, innocent son. It's all well and good, but are we to be surprised that an addict could have once been a sweet and innocent child?
It is a frustrating diversion mainly because the best parts of "Beautiful Boy" are when Carell and Chalamet are together. I wonder whether there is a version of this movie that exists where the timeline is straight, and it is just laser focused on Nic's ups and downs since he started using drugs. Both actors excel together, especially in gut-wrenching scenes like the aforementioned one in the cafe, where David refuses this time to give Nic any money. You can see in Carell's empathetic eyes that the ultimatum is killing him inside.
Although you can empathize with David's struggles, the film keeps the viewer at a bit of a distance by plopping us down in the middle of the crisis and not really letting us get to know this father and son outside of it. And forget about the other characters: Save for one scene that comes out of nowhere, Tierney, as the stepmother, seems to only be around to look concerned in the background. And Nic's birth mother Vicki (Amy Ryan) gets even less to do, and we never learn why she's so distant in her son's life other than the fact that she lives in Los Angeles. That's not to say it is not beautifully shot, and acted, with compelling and affecting music cues from Neil Young to Radiohead. But a film like this, as authentic and raw as it is, should probably leave audiences in a puddle and not exiting the theater wondering why they're not.
"Beautiful Boy," an Amazon Studios release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "drug content throughout, language, and brief sexual material." Running time: 112 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.