The film watching period between October and January is one that’s full with films that simply exist to earn their talent an Oscar nomination. These are films that roll along, exist in the public consciousness for a period of time, and then simply disappear into the ether. Think August: Osage County. Think Nine. Think The Imitation Game. Think Trumbo. These were all nominated for Oscars, and they all existed in film history, but they simple came and went and did their job. Julia Roberts, Penelope Cruz, and Meryl Streep received Oscar nominations. Benedict Cumberbatch entered Oscar history by gaining a nomination for a performance that many would struggle to remember that he did, just like Bryan Cranston’s performance that seemed to exist simply so Bryan Cranston could be nominated for an Oscar.
Beautiful Boy is the latest film that embarks on the Oscar-bait train that runs full steam through the latter half of the year. Previous Oscar nominees Steve Carrell and Timothee Chalamet star as the real life father and son duo, David and Nic Sheff. Nic struggles with a drug addiction that he’s managed to keep hidden from his family for a long period of time. David is a freelancing journalist who comes to realise that the boy that he helped raise has not turned into the adult he expected him to. Both are writers, and through an act of great genius, they both turned their experience with addiction into a set of books. David wrote Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, and Nic wrote Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines. Beautiful Boy is an adaptation of both books, with Oscar nominees Luke Davies (Lion) and Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) adapting them for the screen. Van Groeningen takes the role of director.
With the trailer already primed for Awards season glory (literally everyone involved gets the much desired ‘Oscar Nominee’ tag next to their name), one has to ask, what exactly is the point of Beautiful Boy? With the huge array of addiction focused films out there, why this one? I mean, other than the desire to get Chalamet and Carrell extra Oscar nominations. (You can bet that Chalamet is a lock-in for the nomination, and if it turns out to be a weak year, he could be walking away with the award.)
The addiction narrative is one that’s an easy home run for actors. It provides many, many Capital A Acting moments, with both the person suffering from addiction, and those associated with them, all getting moments that show them grappling with Emotions. There’s anger, frustration, fear, despair, love, joy: it’s like a veritable rainbow of emotions. And, sure, within Beautiful Boy, there’s a wealth of scenes that do exactly that. The scene where David tries drugs just so he understands why his son uses them is one for example, or another is where Nic asks his father for money so he can go to New York just to get away from home, or maybe there’s a… y’know… you’ve seen all of this ‘movie of the week’ kind of drama before. You know exactly where this film is going, and you know how it’ll end. There is simply nothing new in Beautiful Boy, and in turn, there’s little reason for it to exist.
This rote narrative isn’t helped by the privilege that runs through the story. The Sheff’s aren’t struggling for a dime, and in turn, they have the ability to get Nic into whatever rehab facility that they want. One moment where David shrugs off sending Nic to a $40,000 a month facility because it has ‘bad reviews’ comes off as purely arrogant. And maybe that’s the point of David – a father who has no idea what his son is going through, and in turn, wants to do everything he can to help him out, even if it means doing too much. Unfortunately, even though this story is taken from two different books that contain two different perspectives, we’re predominantly given David’s perspective as the helicopter dad who struggles to let go of his son.
That in itself is an interesting narrative, however, we’re constantly kept at an arms-length, never properly being able to engage with the narrative on a deep, emotional level, mostly thanks to the implementation of well-known songs that tell you how to feel. One moment where Nic is driving alongside the ocean, all the while Heart of Gold plays over the scene, feels particularly on the nose. The less said about the cloying appearance of the song the title comes from the better.
Sure, Chalamet and Carrell prove that they are genuinely talented actors, and they definitely do the Sheff’s proud by portraying their story with all the heart that they feel it needs. The less said about the truly wasted Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan the better – their roles are perfunctory at best, merely existing to prop up the two male leads. They’re talented actresses that are simply robbed of anything of value to work with.
On top of that, if there was any value in telling the Sheff’s story, then it could have possibly trudged down the path that The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby followed. Namely, have each characters story told from their perspective in their own film, and then combine the two perspectives into one film. As it is, we are given the outsiders perspective of Nic’s addiction, never fully understanding why or how Nic became addicted to drugs in the first place, in turn, the story never escapes the feeling of perpetual head scratching.
If you’re easily emotionally manipulated by stories that only exist to emotionally manipulate you, then sure, this will work for you. But for the sceptical, cynical bastards out there like me, you’ll be in the ‘darn this Oscar bait’ boat, rolling your eyes as the storm of Oscar-nomination-seeking flicks sweeps the end of the year away.
Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Cast: Steve Carrell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney
Writers: Luke Davies, Felix Van Goeningen, (Based on books by David and Nic Sheff)