'Beautiful Boy' is deeply flawed but a must watch film

Sunday, January 6, 2019

"Beautiful Boy" (Amazon); Director: Felix Van Groeningen; Starring: Steve Carell, Timothy Chalamet; Rating: ***(3 stars)

There is so much that this heart-shattering drama about a distraught father coping with his son's drug addiction could have done. Instead "Beautiful Boy" plays it safe. It casts Timothee Chalamet as Nic Sheff, a teenager trying to shrug-off his addiction even as he sinks lower and lower into the abyss of drug abuse.

Chalamet takes care of all the sympathy that the plot needs to muster for us to go along with his nerve-wracking journey into self-destruction. The film is based on Nic Sheff's account "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines" as well as his father David Sheff's "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction", so we ought to have been provided with a spectral double view of a family tragedy that unfolds over a period of several years during which time the young addict's life comes apart at the seams.

Soon, as I watched the honest but not memorable film, I realized this is not Nic's story. It is his father's story of coping with a crisis of unimaginable proportions as his family life falls apart. How much of himself can David Sheff give to his son's problem before giving up the fight? The film, in its own somnolent style, shows us the threshold of parental patience. And Steve Carrell is fine if not memorable, as the father. This is more his story than his son's.

It's easier to follow the father's steps as he moves further and further away from his son's emotional axis. There are sequences that are designed to bring us close to tears. But we never get that close to the characters to feel their pain. The emotional responses never emerge organically from the plot characters.

Carrell and Chalamet playing the estranged father-son routine seem to say all the right things to each other with just the right pauses and punctuations. It's almost like watching them do a translation of the real emotions in digestible terms.

I missed a sense of unrehearsed spontaneity in the dialogues. In addition, the unhurried pace and the repetitive mode of unveiling the inherently-dramatic dysfunctionalism (drug addict comes home, disappears, comes home) makes "Beautiful Boy" more remarkable for what it sets out to say rather than the way it says it.

Not that the film is without its moments. In some sequences we see Nic's naked anguish as he stares blankly into his own future. Chalamet, so effective as a man-boy discovering gay love in "Call Me By Your Name" is deeply effective though not as impact-driven as Lucas Hedges in "Ben Is Back" , that other recent more powerful drama of a parent coping with the son's drug addiction.

"Beautiful Boy" is riddled with problems, none of which are related to the protagonist's drug addiction. It jumps back and forth, impatiently creating a breach between the characters, their problems and our empathy for them.

But the background score is magnificent. The narrative uses insistent pounding rock sounds to echo Nic's psyche and settles down for a quieter musical statement at the end when all options for redemption are exhausted.

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