I don’t mean to be callous. Drug addiction is an awful disease, and one affecting millions of those right now in the throes of opioid use disorder, among others. Just a few short weeks ago A Star is Born gently tackled the childhood trauma at the heart of Jackson Mane’s alcoholism, and now true story Beautiful Boy tells of Nicholas Scheff, eighteen year-old addict of meth, heroin, and more as he copes with the unbearable lightness of being, I assume. I assume because I still don’t know. Based on the memoir of his father David Scheff, here played by Steve Carell, it’s a repetitive slog through the mundanities and extremities of drug addiction, much like the disease itself. Despite a mature performance from rising movie star Timothee Chalamet, director Felix van Groeningen has reared an authentic but rather pedestrian version of true events, staid in style if noble in reality.
Watching Groeningen’s picture is like watching the same Mazda Miata crash over and over again, only this car, nice as it is, has zero bearing on your own life or feelings or longings. I’m sure I’m not the first to compare drug addiction and self-destruction to a car crash. It’s a moot point and a rote metaphor at this juncture. It’s quite apt here for one reason: remove. We don’t cry foul or cry tears at a distant ruin because we know nothing of those involved, we’re removed from the lives of strangers passing us by on the highway or freeway or alleyway or wherever they’ve met their destructive fate. But if it’s you, a friend, a family member, even a fun acquaintance, we’re suddenly involved, invested, crying tears for ourselves or our loved ones. The fatal flaw of any film requiring specificity isn’t the lack thereof, it’s the filmmaker’s inability to place an audience in the walk-a-day shoes of an unknowable stranger. Unless you’re an addict, former addict ,or addict counselor, we cannot know what it’s really like to be Nicholas Scheff. That shouldn’t stop us from trying. Due to Groeningen’s somewhat remote, observational style and fractured timeline, one attempting to emulate the memories of David Scheff, Beautiful Boy is unable to make us relate or otherwise feel what it’s like to be a single young man at the mercy of this gaping hole in his chest, in his soul. Lip service to such things, like a “black hole,” like “coping with reality” aren’t enough in the absence of emotional depth or personality.
Beyond Chalamet’s own contributions, we sure don’t learn a great deal about what it’s like, what makes him tick, what makes Nic a “special creation” or simply a mark for the seedy intentions of white powder. What drives him? What gives him meaning? We know he’s a casual writer and carefree artist with a void in his heart, but that ain’t much in the grand scheme of all things drug addiction. We’re seeing Nic through the eyes of his father, which makes sense in light of his memoir. Carell balances well the genuine care and bellicose criticisms of a father with control issues, a man for whom a great life is a series of distractions from the greater tragedies of his oldest son. That point of view was a mistake, as Nic’s actions and inactions in the face of that tragedy are seen critically and without proper empathy. His father is heartbroken but removed, incurious about the root cause of it all, and so are we in the process. It’s a credit to the creative leg work of a performer like Chalamet that we care as much as we do, for what that’s worth. Character actress Amy Ryan, Holly of Office fame and one-time Oscar nominee, shows up sporadically as Nic’s mother, the other end of the spectrum in terms of too many questions dawning on each and every audience member: who fucked him up? Was it Mom or Dad? Or both? Or neither? What happened to Michael and Holly so many years later? Given the breadth of time, a span of years, there’s no time for answers to these questions.
There are needles and there are needling callbacks in the middle of rehab, the nagging call of a prescription bottle in a bathroom cupboard. We’re shown the brink, that deathly hangover, the overdose on a bathroom floor. We’re shown the grimy detail of that terrible brink, and almost none of the fight back, of what it takes to claw back to yourself. Yes, there are platitudes from parents and sponsors, there are snapshots of the brain on smack, on meth, on everything. There are no revelations, no epiphanies, no moment of truth outside of indie cinema’s familiar ring of “truth.” There are difficult conversations, runaways, rehab, relapse, rinse, repeat. It’s a never-ending series of commas. Mind you, it’s difficult to call a true story cliched or familiar. I understand the inherent flaw of these notions given that very real possibility that it all happened as it happened. As an objective observer, however, I’m not judging the content or real characters, I’m judging storytelling. Any story can be made fresh, any character made palpable given the right angle, the right words. This was a case of a right cast with a wrong director. Groeningen is both clearly well-intentioned, even talented, and clearly out of step with the needs of his subjects, his early collaborators. Oddly, considering the actors’ showcase, Beautiful Boy does not rise or fall on the considerable strengths of Carell, Chalamet, and the rest.
It’s all so real and yet so lacking, a film of zero false notes that fails to inspire or enlighten. That might sound ludicrous given the myriad of feel-good moments just waiting to happen, or the table-top matches between father and son debating Nic’s own predicament, that familiar ring of “truth.” It’s not ludicrous, it’s merely Groeningen’s flat version of the truth. Without that crucial edge, we’re left with a tragic story and a more effective public service announcement. There’s more to be had, more psychology to be hatched, more to mine of Nic and David and the nitty-gritty-grimy details of what heals, what makes that fight worth living. As my wife, a drug addiction counselor, put it to me…this is a film for parents and sponsors and people who have never experienced drug addiction, this is not a film for drug addicts or those in rehab. Though there were compliments too, I couldn’t think of a more serious condemnation.