The people emerging from the afternoon screening of Beautiful Boy, still mopping at their eyes, pay testament to the fact that this film is what used to be termed a ‘four handkerchief weepie.’ My tears are undoubtedly flowing as abundantly as many others in the audience, because this is a heartrending story about a father’s desperate attempts to deal with his beloved son’s drug addiction. Be warned, it does not exactly make for a side-splitting trip to the cinema.
Freelance journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell, who seems to be in so many films lately it’s a wonder he didn’t land the title role in Mary Queen of Scots) has always had a close relationship with his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet), a handsome and talented young lad who appears to have the brightest possible future ahead of him – until crystal meth addiction gets in the way and turns him into a deceitful, self-destructive shadow of what he once was. David can only watch in abject misery as all his hopes for his son’s future go headfirst down the nearest toilet – and we share his pain. It’s like watching helplessly as an out of control vehicle hurtles headlong to destruction, knowing that we are powerless to change anything.
Based on two books – one by the father and the other by the son – Beautiful Boy attempts to give us both sides of the story, though it must be said that I am occasionally left wanting more detail – and there is the conviction that some of the less salubrious elements of the tale have been lightly glossed over, perhaps because they may not show the protagonists in the best light. For instance, at one point David says that he has made mistakes in parenting Nic, but we don’t see any – indeed, he emerges as an almost saintly figure, working tirelessly to offer help and financial support.
The film belongs to the two leads and Chalomet, building on the superb work he did in Call Me By Your Name, manages to make us care about Nic, even as he does the most heinous things to the people who love him, even stealing money from the younger brother who clearly idolises him. Maura Tierney as David’s second wife, Karen, doesn’t have an awful lot to do here and, for that matter, neither does Amy Ryan as his first wife, Vicki. The story skips nimbly back and forth in time, using earlier scenes to emphasise the implicit trust that father and son once enjoyed and there are some clever uses of music to help tie things together – any film that features Neil Young’s Heart of Gold gets brownie points from me, even if its appearance precedes one of the story’s most distressing scenes.
The film ends with a plea for addicts everywhere to seek help and reminds us that, in America, drug addiction is the primary cause of death for young men under the age of fifty, which is sobering news, and underlines how the massive profits enjoyed by both drug suppliers and treatment centres are shameful and obscene.
Beautiful Boy is a heartfelt film with an important message and it deserves to be seen, but be prepared, take a hanky. You’ll probably need it.