BEAUTIFUL BOY, US, 2018. Starring Steve Carrel, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Christian Convery, Oakley Bull. Directed by Felix van Groeningen. 114 minutes. Rated MA (Strong drug use).
Watching this film is a demanding, indeed a sobering, experience. The title sounds gentle – and the familiar song is played throughout the film. However, it is a film about addictions, relapses and recovery, the relationship between a father and a son.
The film opens tellingly with a focus on David Shef, an impressive performance by Steve Carrel, proving that not only can he do comedy expertly, but he is a very serious actor as well. David Shef is talking about his bewilderment, his not understanding the son whom he thought he knew and loved so well, an 18-year-old who has become involved in drugs which have taken over his life. Audiences will immediately identify with him as a father driven to search for his son and will be remembering any friends or family in similar situations.
In fact, the film is based on books by David Shef himself as well as his son Nic. For those who do not know this, the final critical climax for Nic is all the more dramatic because the audience is uncertain as to what will happen.
The film goes back one year but, throughout the screenplay, many flashbacks are inserted, not necessarily signalled but the film leaving it to the audience to realise the shifts in time and memory for both father and son.
There are many photos of father and son, especially when he was a charming boy in his early teens. And, there are many glimpses and memories of this time throughout the film. However, during the main action, Nic is 18. He is played most convincingly by Timothee Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name, Lady Bird). The film lets the audience know that David has been long divorced from his wife, Vicki (Amy Ryan) but that he has custody of his son. There are tense moments and phone calls between mother and father as exasperation increases and there are growing awarenesses of responsibilities.
David has married again, and receives strong support from Karen (Maura Tierney) and they have children of their own who see Nic as their brother, devoted to him.
David seeks advice, researches addiction, especially crystal meth, appreciates the mood changes and their suddenness, is helped by an expert with diagrams of the brain and the effect of drugs, even prepared to experiment to appreciate what his son experiences. There is a scene where the father and son share pot, the father remembering his experimentation but not wanting his son to experiment at all.
And, as might be expected, there are many harrowing sequences, Nic at home and rebelling against his father’s control, leaving home, his father rescuing him in the rain at a dingy drug rendezvous, his going into rehab, relapsing. There are some moments of peace when Nic seems to have overcome the habit, works in the rehab, graduates from college. But, whatever the black hole that he declares is at the core of himself, his life is also one of relapse. He takes up with the girl who overdoses.
The film raises the question as to whether anyone is able to help an addict, whether it has to be the choice of the addict rather than a curer. And, by the end, David is desperate, a powerful scene where Karen pursues Nic in her car and stops angry but helpless. Nic goes into the depths.
The film is very powerful as drama. The performances are well worth seeing. Statistics are given at the end concerning the prevalence of drug suicides, the need for rehabilitation but it seeming difficult if not impossible. However, as noted, this film is based on actual stories and recovery.
Transmission. Released 25th October
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.