Starring Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney; directed by Felix Van Groeningen; 112 minutes; R for drug use throughout, crude language and brief sexual material.
Let no one accuse “Beautiful Boy” of false advertising. The protagonist, Nic Sheff, more than lives up to the title, a bright, charismatic young man who, as brought to life by Timothée Chalamet, brims with ethereal sensitivity.
The fact that Nic is such a sweetheart is what makes “Beautiful Boy” so excruciating. As the film opens, Nic’s father, David (Steve Carell), is visiting a drug addiction expert, not as a reporter but as a panicked father.
Based on memoirs by the real-life Nic and David Sheff, “Beautiful Boy” recounts, with harrowing detail and an encroaching sense of dread, how a child of privilege and promise became hostage to drugs, in this case methamphetamine, as a teenager and young adult.
In a more oblique way, it serves as a sobering cautionary tale about the dangers of parents projecting their egos, identities and expectations on children whose journeys always will be their own, for better or worst of the worse.
After it becomes clear that Nic’s adolescent dabbling in substances has given way to more alarming compulsions — including stealing from the piggy banks of his young stepsiblings to pay for his habit — David does what most self-respecting journalists would do: He tries to report his way out of it, accumulating facts, figures and anecdotes as a way to wrap his mind around events that are spinning out of control.
Only through the wrenching cycle of rehab-relapse-rinse-and-repeat does David slowly realizes that, despite his intelligence and protective impulses, he’s not in charge.
Chalamet’s performance helps elevate a boho-bourgeois melodrama to something that aspires to be more achingly real and human.
Whether by design or not, the film refuses to engage some of the more pressing questions that the Sheffs’ story raises: What made Nic so vulnerable to meth in the first place, and what needs to click for addicts to stay clean?
What’s left is a painful, frustrating, sometimes infuriating depiction of helplessness, even passivity, as a life full of potential circles the drain.
Put another way, “Beautiful Boy” is about unconditional love, at its most powerless and supernaturally healing.