Bad times there are once the teenaged Nic goes whole hog into meth and heroin. Chalamet is rail-thin for the role, accentuating his vulnerability both in the viewer’s and his dad’s eyes. How many more rain-soaked nights spent dozing through a heroin nod can someone this frail endure? Beautiful Boy and Chalamet are most effective when they’re focusing on the vicious cycle of drug use leading into recrimination which leads right back into using. The film shows how it builds up in slow drips and Chalamet carries the self-hatred on his bony shoulders. Coupled with the fat tears he sheds in multiple scenes and the myriad admissions and emotions he’s swallowing with facial tics, Chalamet gives a tremendous physical performance that friendly rival Lucas Hedges probably has difficulty measuring up to in the as-yet-unseen Ben Is Back, another film about a shaky addict and their concerned parent.
As the parent, Carell is tasked with displaying heights of emotion that he has a difficult time with. Despair is within his wheelhouse, but anger is far from his forte, such that when he is asked to yell and erupt at the futility of his efforts to help his son, it’s close to laughable. His voice just can’t hit the right register, and he’ll always be Michael Scott yelling about the return of Toby, the hated HR guy. Otherwise, as the audience surrogate, Carell’s David takes the viewer to the exact same place that the character arrives at. All of the worry and the concern for the children he’s had with second wife Karen (Maura Tierney) means that, while it would surely be devastating, the death of Nic might be the better outcome when compared to this purgatorial torture of uncertainty and impotence.
As concerns addictions itself, Beautiful Boy is firmer on causes than on solutions. There’s no real reason for Nic’s addiction: it’s acknowledged as nothing more than brain chemistry and genetics, a cold fact driven home by David doing some experimenting of his own that only results in a restless night and nothing more. The film also understands that people do drugs partly because they work, and Groeningen includes the transcendence of various highs alongside the shame that awaits in the morning. Understanding this, Beautiful Boy then falls back into the language of AA despite that not being anywhere near the current debate. If a tenet of AA is ‘there’s no chemical solution to a spiritual problem,’ then it has little to offer beyond a social club that meets daily in church basements. Problems of neurotransmitters and genetics are inherently chemical, and Beautiful Boy never approaches this avenue as a potential solution. It runs against the grain of the popular depiction of addiction, but it follows the popularly accepted AA line as the most likely avenue towards sobriety.
Beautiful Boy’s greatest asset is its resistance to the trite happy ending where the protagonist accepts an AA token to applause, but by shunning any kind of closure with the source of the film’s conflict, the arc shifts to David. A film about a character who can’t stop doing something and another who has to come to the conclusion that he can’t help a person he loves is going to keep an audience at arm’s length, as Beautiful Boy does. Movies don’t have to adhere to formula or include catharsis, but if they’re going to go against the grain of story structure, they need to be unimpeachable, and this film isn’t that. C+