Outstanding lead performances make up for the oppressiveness of the repetitive rehab-and-relapse material in “Beautiful Boy,” a flawed but captivating addiction biopic and father-son heartbreaker.
The English-language debut of Belgian filmmaker Felix van Groeningen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Luke Davies, is based on dual memoirs by David Sheff and Nic Sheff.
Like Van Groeningen’s 2013 “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” an award-winning drama, “Beautiful Boy” tells an emotional story, sometimes in problematic jump-around fashion, of a once-healthy relationship unraveling from catastrophe.
Steve Carell plays Marin-based journalist David Sheff, whose 18-year-old son, Nic (Timothee Chalamet), has become addicted to drugs, including, most devastatingly, crystal meth.
Nic says the drug turns his black-and-white life into Technicolor. But it has transformed him from a promising college-bound artist into a lying, stealing, smirking creature David hardly recognizes.
The story consists largely of David struggling to understand what has happened to the son he loves and attempting to pull Nic out of his state. He places Nic in rehab, but Nic relapses. The ups and downs become mostly downs. David cannot save Nic.
Perhaps intending to offset the despair, the filmmakers frequently flash back to happier days. While some of these scenes deliver welcome light-heartedness — when father and son are clowning around, trying to speak Klingon — others prove confusing, in terms of time frames.
Also frustrating is the concerted focus on Nic’s pattern of cleaning up and then relapsing. This material starts feeling repetitive and relentless.
Capable costars Maura Tierney, who plays David’s second wife and the mother of David’s two younger children, and Amy Ryan as David’s ex-wife and Nic’s mother, have almost nothing to do.
Van Groeningen additionally should have rethought pop music-accompanied montages, including, embarrassingly, one with “Sunrise, Sunset.”
Still, the director gets enough right to make the movie an honest, involving portrayal of the toll of addiction on individuals and families. He refuses to tie up the story in a feel-good bow or soften Nic’s behavior to elicit viewer sympathy. The actors consistently transcend the film’s shortcomings and make the hellish journey worth taking.
Carell, whose David may be the greatest movie father since Michael Stuhlbarg as Chalamet’s dad in “Call Me by Your Name,” affirms his ability to portray serious roles; he conveys, often through the fading of hope in David’s eyes, the character’s devotion and helplessness.
Chalamet, a sizzling talent who’s scarily convincing as a meth addict, is willing to be utterly unlikable, yet his charisma makes us stick with his horridly behaving character.
A cafe scene in which Nic tries to manipulate David into giving him money may earn the young actor a statuette.
Starring: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan
Directed by: Felix van Groeningen
Written by: Luke Davies, Felix van Groeningen
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes