More often than not, films about addiction can be catergorised as one might describe as ‘Oscar-bait’, that is to say they attempt to appeal to the Academy using over-dramatised retellings of someone’s story featuring big name actors gunning for Oscar glory with unnecessarily melodramatic performances. Fortunately in the case of Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy, an adaptation of David Sheff’s book of the same name as well as his son Nic Sheff’s own book Tweak, the sense of over-dramatisation to meet awards criteria is never favoured over authenticity, something that upon watching the trailer may seem surprising.
A pair of powerhouse performances
Despite the sense of Oscar-baiting in this film not being as prevalent as expected, Beautiful Boy possesses its fair share of star power, who’s performances will surely be talked about in the upcoming awards season. The film’s story tells of David and Nic Sheff, who’s close father and son bond begins to unravel when Nic becomes hooked on crystal meth, and details the harrowing impact that addiction as a disease has on not only those addicted, but their families too.
Portraying David Sheff, the father so desperate to help his son and rebuild their breaking bond is Steve Carell, who delves deeper than ever into a dramatic role that culminates in a quietly brilliant performance. Unlike his transformative, arguably Oscar-bait performance as the psychopathic John du Pont in 2014’s Foxcatcher, Carell taps into his emotional side to portray David, depicting a man at the very end of his tether in his quest to cure his son’s addiction. He sits at breaking point yet still remains so determined, and the deeply set sadness behind his eyes makes Nic’s constant failure to stay sober all the more poignant. It is the subtlety of which Carell portrays David that makes his performance so powerful, that it feels more personal and so easy for the audience to invest in. Despite an already stacked-looking Best Actor race, Carell could very well sneak his way in for a nomination should the film’s distributors campaign well.
However, it is not Carell’s performance that the distributors will be campaigning heavily for with regards to the Oscars, but surely young Timothée Chalamet. Fresh off becoming the youngest Best Actor nominee since 1944, Chalamet returns with a hugely committed supporting performance as Nic, depicting addiction in a way that feels so intensely accurate. Certainly pulling no punches emotionally, the way Chalamet taps in to Nic’s disease, portraying the multiple ways that addiction affects one’s mental health and personality, particularly the drastic mood swings where he goes from sobbing to screams of rage in an instant. All of this makes for a truly hard to watch, hugely emotive portrayal that will undoubtedly earn him a Supporting Actor nomination, if not make him the current favourite for the win.
Substance over style
Technically speaking, Beautiful Boy doesn’t really have what it takes to compete perhaps for Best Picture, but such is the nature of the more personal character-driven films. The cinematography isn’t complex or inventive particularly, but the lighting present throughout certainly enhances the film’s look above expectations. One technical element that felt slightly messy was the film’s score, where the tone of the music never really seemed to line itself up with what was unfolding on-screen, a problem which arguably diminished some of the film’s emotional impact, but not enough to truly notice.
Fortunately, smart editing enables a successful use of multiple flashback scenes, weaving together crucial scenes wherein the viewer is shown how Nic’s addiction has affected his relationship with his dad. The stark contrast between the scenes showing Nic’s early years and his addiction ones makes for painful viewing, as you realise the strain this disease has put on a father and son who love one another more than “everything”. Equally, opting to use a grainy picture in the flashback scenes gives them a more personal edge, feeling more like a home video than a film.
A real bonus of Beautiful Boy was its ability to shed any preconceptions of Oscar-baiting, allowing for a personal, relatable feel to the film. However, it’s technical side tends to let it down slightly, especially the score’s unclear tone that doesn’t match the raw emotion of the story. The film is elevated though by its strong, emotive performances that bare stark contrast to one another, Carell’s subtlety and Chalamet’s commitment work in perfect harmony to make their story all the more poignant. Certainly a player in the acting races, Carell an outsider but with Chalamet on the front foot in the Supporting Actor race, Beautiful Boy will certainly stay relevant. Despite this, the highest praise should go to the sincere attempt to raise awareness for a crippling affliction that effects so many lives, something Beautiful Boy accomplishes with a great deal of respect and authenticity.
Words by Elliott Jones