The true story at the centre of Beautiful Boy is that of David and Nic Sheff, a father and son, as Nic’s life falls apart piece by piece as he continually engages in self-sabotage via drug use.
The film hints at a deeper depression causing Nic’s behaviour but perhaps the biggest problem is that we know both too much and too little about either character. The film was adapted from two books written by the Sheffs, each telling their side of the story and I think it’s likely that had the film chosen to focus more on the experience of one family member it would have made for a more effective emotional picture. We would find it easier to empathise with David’s desperate failure to reach his son if we saw no more than he did, and we would find it easier to empathise with Nic’s sense of fear and despairing rootlessness and pressure to confront adulthood if we saw it more fully. As a result, the film chooses two half measures and feels somehow lacking, despite the best efforts of the cast and crew.
Felix Van Groningen’s excellent earlier film The Broken Circle Breakdown was about a pair of bluegrass singers torn apart by their different reactions to losing their daughter to cancer, from which this film has inherited its big, obtrusive use of musical cues as well as the thematic link of family members frustrated by their love for one another not being enough to keep them together. As with the earlier film, the performances, not only from stars Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet but the supporting cast as well, are natural and committed and Van Groningen has a talent for getting great performances out of child actors. His work in shot composition and musical cues is more hit and miss, some scenes are underplayed but blunt and effective and some feel like missed opportunities.
There have been quite a few excellent films made about drug addiction, but in all the ones that work best, like Trainspotting, Heaven Knows What or The Panic in Needle Park, they aren’t really about addiction. For a film to be truly successful, or even to be fully a piece of art, requires some kind of engagement with the metaphorical and I would argue that this film is most effective when drugs become synecdoche for any kind of stress that strains the ability for two people, specifically a parent and a child to comprehend each other’s or their own, mindsets, behaviour or sense of priorities. Such stories are effective not because they address the important social problem of drug abuse, but because they speak to anyone who has ever been made to believe that they have disappointed a parent or feel that they have made their child feel that way and none of their efforts to show their love is working. Beautiful Boy does engage with this level to some extent and it works well when it does and allows its audience to see themselves in its story. However, the final note it chooses to leave on gives the impression of a much more pedagogic cautionary tale than it was at its best moments.