In his song “Beautiful Boy,” John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Speaking of other plans, I recommend you make some, instead of watching the new biographical drama that shares its name with Lennon’s song.
Beautiful Boy is the English-language directorial debut of Felix van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown). It features Steve Carell as a loving father of a drug-addicted son and Timothée Chalamet as the eponymous 18-year-old. The film’s dour tone is established early when we glimpse a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, the title of which perfectly describes not just Chalamet’s character but the awful pit into which methamphetamine casts its victims. The rest of the movie, predictably, depicts that deepening hole and the father’s attempt to shovel his son out and then learn when to stop digging.
The screenplay by van Groeningen and Luke Davies is based on memoirs by David and Nic Sheff, the real father and son, so it’s undoubtedly sincere. Indeed, the painfully realistic – and all too common – story is lacking in both pretention and contrivance. The performances are also heartfelt, with Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name, Lady Bird) proving again why he’s one of the most exciting young American actors. Carell is also engaging in spurts, though we might have finally seen the limits of his dramatic acting. Maura Tierney (as the stepmom) and Amy Ryan (as the partially estranged mother who reconnects with her son) are also believable, fleshing out an extended family that slowly and agonizingly accepts that substance abuse forces us to “mourn the living.”
The aforementioned successes of the film make the directorial, organizational, stylistic and musical choices all the more frustrating, as those are the areas in which Boy becomes ugly. Leaning too heavily on its soundtrack and quirky, flashback-laden editing, the film quickly turns into a clinic on how poor structure can doom a narrative. Like its title character, it struggles to find direction, unable to build much momentum and emotion thanks to its odd, repetitive and jumbled juxtaposition of scenes. Instead, it tries to establish empathy by tossing around tunes, but that cloying strategy stinks of narrative laziness. (Not all films can be The Graduate.) And by the end, what should have been one of the year’s strongest dramas is reduced to something closer to a television flick or a glorified PSA.
At one point during his painful journey of discovery, Carell’s character conjectures, “I don’t think you can save people.” That might be true, but you can save films, and Beautiful Boy could and should have been saved by better directorial choices.