Most movies about addiction just nod at the ways in which the disease affects not only the addict but the addict’s family. Few actually settle down in midnight living rooms and hospital waiting areas, taking measure of the invisible toll on parents and siblings. So “Beautiful Boy” is a welcome corrective, of sorts. If only it weren’t quite so . . . clean.
Based on books by its two main characters, journalist David Sheff (“Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through his Son’s Addiction,” 2008) and his son, Nic (“Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines,” 2009), it’s an earnest and compassionate treatment of a story that is, by necessity, grueling as hell. It’s graced with sincere performances by Steve Carell (as David) and Timothée Chalamet (as Nic) that strive to steer clear of Actorly Moments. And there are mysteries here — of parenting, of human experience — that director Felix Van Groeningen looks at sharply before looking away.
Some of those mysteries are our own children: how these little people we’re certain we know can grow into seeming strangers. The screenplay by the director and Luke Davies shuttles back and forth in time, between scenes of the father with the elder Nic and scenes with his younger selves (Kue Lawrence plays the toddler version and Jack Dylan Grazer is the 12-year-old Nic). It’s as if Carell’s worried, weary David is desperate to see the thread that connects them and is finding, inexplicably, nothing.
Or maybe he’s seeking the thing he did wrong, whatever that was. Was he too permissive? Not permissive enough? “Beautiful Boy” paints David as a loving upper-middle-class dad, the kind who encourages his son’s creativity and schools him in a hip rock ’n’ roll catechism. Most of us know this guy (some of us are him), and only the bond that Carell has built with audiences over years of adroit, grounded performances keeps the character from seeming too generic.
The rest of the movie has a harder time. Chalamet’s Nic is a bright kid who, at 18, has simply found that the high that drugs give him is more important than anything — in his own words, it turns a black-and-white world into Technicolor. The movie charts his disappearances off the map and subsequent hopeful and hopeless reappearances largely from the father’s vantage point. “Beautiful Boy” acknowledges the awful unknowing that can fill up the chasm of waiting for a child to resurface.
Maura Tierney plays David’s second wife, Karen, mother to their two younger children, Jasper (Christian Convery, excellent) and Daisy (Oakley Bull), and Amy Ryan plays Vicki, David’s first wife and Nic’s mother, down the coast from them in Los Angeles. Both actresses are squeezed into the movie’s corners, and both have one or two scenes that allow them to push back with quiet and necessary determination. There are moments when David is a bigger baby than his son, and someone needs to call him on it.
Tierney and Ryan are two of the more naturalistic points in a movie that watches itself too carefully. “Beautiful Boy” is a case study in tasteful over-direction: David and Karen’s Marin County home is a shabby-chic House & Garden marvel (he’s a freelance journalist and she’s an artist, so no idea how that works) and the soundtrack is studded with pop songs evocative (Tim Buckley, Nirvana), obvious (“Beautiful Boy”), and lugubrious (yes, “Sunrise, Sunset”).
Can a music supervisor overplay a movie’s hand on his or her own? By the time Gabe Hilfer breaks out the second movement of Gorecki’s wrenching Third Symphony, you may be ready to cry — or cry uncle. The most potentially powerful scene in “Beautiful Boy” finds David in his son’s empty bedroom reading a journal Nic has left behind. For the first time the father (and the audience) sees the extent of the son’s addictions — for the first time, the mask is fully off — and the camera impassively yet horrifyingly captures Nic’s sanity slowly vanishing off the pages. The scene might be even stronger if the electro-horror music (Pan Sonic’s “Haiti,” I think) weren’t telling us exactly how to feel.
Carell stays steady and true, though, and Chalamet (“Call Me By Your Name”) slides obliquely into his role’s most degrading moments, the hospitalizations and the detox stays, the moments of sobriety and the long, squalid falls back. It’s a hesitant performance, at times mannered and at other times bleakly still. Maybe he’s having a hard time finding a character to play because there just wasn’t much to Nic Sheff when he was high.
“Beautiful Boy” is grinding and repetitive because addiction is grinding and repetitive, which makes the movie truthful while blunting it as drama. That Nic remains something of a riddle to the end — that many children grow into riddles to their parents, to one degree or another, with or without the pharmaceuticals — is a mystery this movie never quite works up the nerve to confront.
Directed by Felix Van Groeningen. Written by Van Groeningen and Luke Davies, based on books by David Sheff and Nic Sheff. Starring Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan. At Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, suburbs. 120 minutes. R (drug content throughout, language, brief sexual material).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.