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Toronto Review: ‘Beautiful Boy’ (★★★)

 Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet both give Oscar-worthy performances as a father and son dealing with the son’s drug addiction in this affecting true story

Stories about drug and alcohol addiction almost come ready with no empathy assembly required. We want to see people overcome this disease and are automatically rooting for them to do so. But, we also know that in real life that doesn’t always happen. They can also veer quickly into 2-hour PSAs on the dangers of drugs. Beautiful Boy manages to mostly sidestep both of those, even if it means coming off a bit indecisive on its point of view.

We meet David Sheff (Steve Carell, continuing his streak of super dramatic work), detailing his son’s addiction to crystal meth and asking a doctor just two questions: “What is this doing to him, and what can I do to help him?”

That’s a middle point, as this nonlinear story cuts around through the story of their lives, from David singing “…my beautiful boy…” to Nic as a child, to sending him off to visit his mother (they divorced early) to rocking out to Nirvana in the with a preteen Nic (played  by IT‘s Jack Dylan Grazer). All while showing us that it doesn’t take a certain type of background, location or upbringing to take you down a path of addiction. The Sheff’s live pretty well, secluded in the woods in a Sunset magazine home north of San Francisco. David writes for Rolling Stone and he tackles Nic’s addiction like he would an RS article; interviewing sources, gathering information and data. 

As Nic, Timothée Chalamet doesn’t miss a beat, following up his Oscar-nominated breakthrough in Call Me By Your Name last year with another astonishing performance, navigating emotional highs and lows like a seasoned veteran. It never feels like a calculation or a manipulation, of the audience, that is. Watching the machinations of Nic trying to convince his father that he didn’t steal his 5-year old brother’s lifetime savings of $8.00; allowing his well-earned sobriety to be ruined by the off-chance of a bottle of pills at a dinner party, these are moments and beats familiar in an addict’s story but it’s Chalamet – his face of angular porcelain and curly brown locks that could be right out of Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio – who sells them with an almost effortless ease.

As David’s new wife Karen, Maura Tierney turns in an excellent supporting performance as a woman who, even though she’s known Nic most of his life, is worried about the safety of her two young children as Nic becomes increasingly more dangerous and untrustworthy. Amy Ryan, as Nic’s mother, spends the better part of the film as a phone-only performance but shows up near the end but remains a bit underutilized.   

Beautiful Boy is unique in that it adapts both Nic and David Sheff’s books to create a meticulous examination on how addiction, and the circle of shame and failure on both sides, can have such a devastating impact. One of the film’s unique aspects is that it doesn’t overindulge in the act of drug taking too much. Yes, we see the process and shooting up but it’s neither gritty nor pretty, it’s just very matter of fact. 

In his English-language debut, director Felix van Groeningen (the Oscar-nominated Broken Circle Breakdown) takes an intense, if straightforward, look at the devastation of drug addiction that might not break any new ground but then might not even need to. The script by Oscar-nominated Lion writer Luke Davies (and a recovering addict himself which he details in his novel “Candy”) plays with structure well to propel us forward to its potent ending. That’s the thing about addiction; it’s so often a cycle and even after years of sobriety and strength the horror of relapse always feels right around the corner. 

Beautiful Boy world premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it in LA and NY on October 12th with a nationwide expansion in the following weeks.

About Erik Anderson

Erik thanks his mother for his love of all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards together since he was in the single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself at GoldDerby, led by Tom O’Neill and then migrated over to Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), headed up by Sasha Stone before breaking off to create AwardsWatch. He is a member of the International Cinephile Society, GALECA (The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics), the International Press Academy and is the founder/owner of AwardsWatch.

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