"Beautiful Boy" -- heart-wrenching,
but sloppily constructed
Brad Trevenen, Arts & Entertainment Editor
Movies, like all consumer products, are targeted enterprises. They prey on our desires, fears, fantasies, while underhandedly sliding some message or idea our way. This is normal, and even preferable — as long as it is subtle. The new Amazon Studios film, “Beautiful Boy,” is far from.
Though not advertised as one, “Beautiful Boy” is a based-on-a-true-story movie (also based on a book). Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) is a young adult dealing with addiction, the effects of which compound and take their toll predominantly on his father, David (Steve Carell), as well as his mother, Vicki (Amy Ryan), and stepmother, Karen (Maura Tierney). The movie tracks Nic’s path of increasingly severe abuse and eventual breaking point.
In a technical capacity, B.B. has some of the makings of a great movie. Character interactions appear indistinguishable from genuine behavior, and nothing appears forced. The performances of the cast illicit sympathy and engagement, and in many ways shoulder the weight of everything else wrong with the movie. There are a few moments of erratic behavior regardless, which occur purely for effective tone or mood, and not because it is in keeping with a given character’s demeanor. This is, however, merely one symptom of a recursively heavy-handed mode of delivery.
It doesn’t help anything that B.B. is fighting the same uphill battle that all based-on-a-true-story movies face. Since, real life is often not interesting enough on its own, style is central to how events are imbued with any meaning whatsoever. While a work of fiction can have events tailored to style and vice versa, a work of nonfiction can only have style tailored to events. Part of how the movie attempts to rectify the content of the real-life story is a non-traditional order of events. This isn’t entirely effective though. Towards the beginning, the movie’s jumps across time are disorienting, when the span is all of 6-12 months. Flashbacks later on, where there is no mistaking between a 12 and 18-year-old, add far more value without any ambiguity. Even with this chopped timeline, the main thread of the film is just one peak and valley after another, a wild goose chase, except the goose is a teenager.
The cinematographic style is otherwise invisible, although occasionally some artsy shot will commence as the score bluntly overlays, and the result is an aberration that only breaks pacing, despite intentions to provoke some positive feeling that is constantly undermined by events that succeed it; and this happens repeatedly. After the second or third time the audience is conditioned to feel uneasy when things seem remotely good, which may have been the directorial intent all along. This only marks further ambiguity and messiness. The juxtapositions require too much effort long after viewing to notice what was trying to be done.
At this point you might be saying, “Well this doesn’t sound very compelling; why was this made?” This is a good question, and it can be answered by taking notice of the local news. Substance abuse has been a problem in the U.S. for a long time, but somewhat recently it has become increasingly prevalent in areas mostly comprised of middle-class families and outside of major cities. Suddenly, it’s clear that Amazon is cashing in on recent events, and preying on a specific demographic; this is made indisputable when abuse statistics pop up on screen at the end of the film, shortly after an incongruent reference to the road to Calvary.
“Beautiful Boy,” as an isolate project, is a well-performed film with a great deal of artistic risk that frequently shoots itself in the foot. But it’s not isolated; it was made with an explicit and poorly shrouded schema, which only holds it back more. In short, it isn’t worth the experience. Numerous other films have covered the ongoing cultural drug problem in America — some utterly tragic, like “Requiem for a Dream,” and others triumphant, like “Traffic” — and you would be better served spending an evening with either of those.