By John H. Foote
Beautiful Boy (**)
There is much to admire in this powerful, often very moving true story of a father and son, as they journey through the younger man’s addiction to meth. One of the most addictive of street drugs, like heroin the user is forever chasing that first astonishing high, which they must know inherently they will never reach it again.
But just as there is some to admire, I despaired that the filmmakers and writers lacked the courage to go deeper.
I grew up in a house full of alcoholics, my father and both my brothers were all drinkers. Dad was never a mean or harmful drunk, he just liked his beer. There was always food on the table, clothes, we wanted for nothing, but Dad drank. The first time I realized it was a problem was in my teens, on a Sunday, and he had no beer. He began calling around to friends to borrow a half dozen, and I remember thinking, “Dad has a problem.” When he quit cold turkey after turning fifty I do not think I was ever as proud of him as I was at that moment. It must have been hell, but he did it. I watched alcoholism nearly ruin the lives of my younger brothers, yet each fought hard and emerged clean and stronger for it. When Hollywood makes films about addiction, they rarely explore the impact on the family, and it is terrible. I watched my parents struggle mightily with my brothers, sitting up at night waiting for them to come home, getting up through the night when they heard one of them cooking for fear they would set the house on fire. It was hard on my parents, watching their youngest sons battle their demons through booze, but each is clean now, and there is a lot of pride about that. As their older brother, despite whatever differences we might have, I am proud of them all for kicking booze. Addiction tears at the very fabric of a family.
We see that in Beautiful Boy, the staggering impact his much-loved sons’ addiction has on his father’s his stepmother, his birth mom and his two much younger siblings, who clearly adore him.
It is an honest film, but somewhere along the way becomes repetitive and redundant, which weakens what could be a demanding film.
He uses meth, his dad bails him out until the next time he uses, and goes into rehab, graduates college, but then relapses worse than ever, this time dragging his girlfriend down into this pit of despair with him. And on it goes, the lies, the stealing from his parents, a low point stealing his eight-year-old brother’s life savings, all eight bucks. It just keeps happening. You can feel the soul-crushing weariness in the father as he watches the son he so adores become something he does not understand, someone he no longer knows. What is heartbreaking is that his son knows and understands what the drug is doing to him, but is powerless to do anything, so great is the hold of the addiction. He sees what his addiction is doing to his family, but the need is more important.
The film is elevated, saved, really by the outstanding performances of the gifted Timothee Chalamet as Nick, the young addict, and Steve Carnell as the loving, but frustrated, increasingly fed up father.
In flashbacks, we see how close father and son have always been, a very special relationship, the sort that all parents dream of. The moment we first gaze upon our newborn child, there is such a bond, a love more frightening than any you experience. This child is yours, YOUR responsibility and you are forever to look after them. Your failures, and we all fail, directly impact our kids. Where did the father here fail? In the divorce? Who knows what drove Nick to addiction, other than what he tells us, that the drug made him feel better than anything in his life. So he uses, as his father watches in an agony that is indescribable.
There is a powerful scene in a diner where they meet after a long time having not seen each other. The father barely recognizes his boy, and worse the son is more aware that the boy his father so loved is gone. Carnell captures the staggering pain of a parent who can no longer reach his son. Being a parent is a lifelong job, it never ends. So often it is forgotten that parents make mistakes, they love too much or not enough, they shape the child that will be an adult but they do so with no real knowledge of how to do it. There is no handbook, just as there is no handbook for growing up. Hopefully, people are doing the best they can.
Chalamet is a wonderful, soulful actor, who brings such truth to each scene. He was brilliant last year in Call Me By Your Name (2017) earning an Oscar nomination and winning the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor. He is again superb here, though the script does not go as deep as I hoped. In life, the young man prostituted himself for drugs, which to me would be harrowing, but they chose to leave it out. Imagine a parent knowing their child did such a thing? How do you get past that? Or do you? What is missing for me is seeing the terrible need addicts have, that need that would cause them to do anything for a hit. We saw it in Requiem for a Dream (2000), still, the most terrifying film about addiction ever made.
Carnell is equally good but he too is trapped by the script. The boy uses, the father helps, uses, helps, at what point have you done enough? Or is that the point? That there is never an end to it?
Maura Tierny has the thankless role of the stepmom who watches in horror as her husband is slowly broken apart by the actions of a boy she too loved. This fine actress is given so little to do it is criminal.
Oddly there were two films at TIFF this year which explored how addiction had ripped families apart, Ben is Back, with Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges being the other. Neither went as deep as they might have, and Oscar attention might come to Chalamet.
But it is a huge maybe right now.
Again, in closing, well acted, but redundant, repetitive, and lacking the courage and startling cantor of the books the film was based upon.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.
Very powerful, honest and thoughtful review, John. “Addiction tears at the very fabric of a family” – so true. Agree with you as well about “Requiem for a Dream”, such a great film and an even better book.