Beautiful Boy (van Groeningen, 2018)

I respect the issues Beautiful Boy tackles. Drug addiction is a serious epidemic that everyone should inform themselves about. Every individual struggle matters. Lives are at stake, and they can be saved with the understanding of a strong support system and the resources available for recovery. All that goes without saying. As a film, Beautiful Boy unfortunately falls victim to the Hollywood machine’s sterility, leaning on artistic embellishments to make its case without making a strong case for those embellishments. Take the editing, for instance. The non-linearity and frequent cutting from past to present is meant, I assume, to mimic the whirlwind nature of addiction, and how life before drugs continues to refract against an addict’s current situation. The attempt is admirable, but muddled beyond comprehension when time periods and signposts are impossible to decipher. To give one example: when Nic takes pills from his schoolmate’s bathroom, is this his first encounter with hard drugs, or a relapse? If the latter, why isn’t it signaled more urgently to us? Meanwhile, Nic’s relationship with his father is buried under so many fragments that the affective tissue is severed. You get that they are close. You get that they love each other. But when their relationship begins to fall apart, it’s difficult to be moved because the connection has not been completely established. So much time is spent moving around in time that the bond in the present day is obscured.

The soundtrack is also a problem. There is too much music here, and too much of it is misused. Songs meant to set the tone end up ruining it. Songs that would be appropriate elsewhere are positioned in sections they don’t belong. This overuse of music lessens the film’s effect considerably and turns it into a feature-length music video at times. Or even a jukebox musical. When “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof kicks in, I could picture Steve Carell and Maura Tierney sharing a duet while staring at their children’s photographs. Instead of making me invested in Nic’s journey, all I could think about was Steve Carell solemnly singing a Broadway showtune. Even writing it down, it sounds so nonsensical, and yet this is the way the film operates. It is self-conscious about being trendy and artistic. It wants to add gravitas by playing Górecki while Nic nearly overdoses in a diner’s bathroom. The way the shot of Chalamet injecting himself is lit, combined with the symphonic movement being overlaid on the scene, aestheticizes this moment well beyond tackiness. It is this moment that told me that this film was more interested in the way it looked than in the way it looked at drug addiction. That is disingenuousness I don’t need to see.

Carell and Chalamet are fine, though neither does enough to compensate for the film’s other failings. Carell’s emotional scenes are too muted; Chalamet is somehow too good-looking all the way through to be truly convincing as a struggling addict. Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan are better, though their roles are too small. I write these details with a heavy sigh, because they all deserved much better than this. For whatever reason, they exist in a film that isn’t interested in doing them justice. The very subject of drug addiction isn’t done justice. And if that’s not done justice, this film is a failure. Survivors of addiction will have to wait for something better.