Addiction stories might wind down different paths, but they only have two endings: Sobriety, or death. Beautiful Boy keeps you strung on that line for nearly all of its run time, and sometimes it feels less like a movie than an endurance test — one that’s lovingly, meticulously made but almost too much like real life: an impressionistic series of highs and lows, relapses and recoveries, without the necessary anchor of a cohesive arc.
Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) is a smart and sensitive teenager, no more or less obviously damaged than any child of divorce brought up in the bohemian privilege of Northern California’s Marin County. He loves music and surfing and drawing in his notebook, but nothing makes him feel like drugs do. First it’s weed, then cocaine, pills, and his kryptonite, crystal meth. Nic’s journalist father, David (Steve Carell), approaches his son’s addiction like a problem he can solve by applying his skill set: ask questions, talk to experts, write it out. Nic can’t stop, though, and he can’t be fixed.
It’s hard to imagine the movie, based on both Sheffs’ memoirs, working at all without Chalamet; He is beautiful — like a boy on a Grecian urn, with a crack running through it. And his performance feels both exquisitely calibrated and utterly lived in, alternately sweet and addled, furious and catatonic. He comes alive around his younger siblings, and seems to find himself again when he enrolls in college and meets a girl. But a bottle of a prescription pills in the bathroom at a dinner party is all it takes to send him off the ledge again, and as he stumbles in and out of hospitals and rehabs, the people that love him — his father, his mother (Amy Ryan), his stepmom (Maura Tierney) — turn from hope to triage, and despair.
The acting is uniformly excellent, and the movie looks almost disconcertingly great; with his indie-rock soundtrack and verdant, gorgeously shot landscapes, Belgian filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) oddly recalls the aesthetic of Jean Marc Vallée’s recent HBO miniseries Big Little Lies; except instead of Monterey and murder, it’s Marin and methamphetamine cooked in tablespoons. Even as the narrative meanders and doubles back, Carell and Chalamet are too good not to make you care; they just can’t make Boy come together like it should. B