Film review: Beautiful Boy (Director: Felix van Groeningen)
By Sascha Krieger
Eventually ending up as the festival’s Panorama section audience award winner, the 2013 edition of the Berlin Film Festival featured a film that would send theatres full of hardened critics and experienced film lovers into collective crying fits that would last beyond the closing credits. That film, The Broken Circle Breakdown, the story of a great but tragic love, established Belgian film maker Felix van Groeningen as a master of raw, undiluted and painfully honest emotion. In his newest effort, Beautiful Boy, he dives into highly emotional waters again, exploring that first love of all, that between parents and children. Based on David Sheff’s book of the same name and his son Nick’s follow-up Tweak, it tells the real-life story of their struggle with and ultimately against Nic’s drug addiction that he got captured in during his teenage years. It covers several years, jumping back and forth, treating time not as a linear entity but a stagnating event, stuck in repetition, going in, yes, broken, circles.
Aided by van Groeningen’s permanent collaborator Ruben Impens as the director of photography, the film opens with the elder Sheff researching the effects of crystal meth, Nic’s drug of choice, then going back to when he first discovered something was wrong. Childhood flashbacks are added, scenes juxtaposed against each other, audio running into the next scene, music sweeping up larger timelines into short fragmented sketches. Nothing is stable in this film as nothing is in the lives it shows. Long, still sequences give way to free-flowing collages of short moments, the frames are very rigid when the addiction is pictured but a lot more mobile when scenes of happiness are remembers or glimpses of hope enjoyed. The tone is constantly changing and with it the mood and atmosphere, the imagery, the narrative structure, as Nic goes from rehab to relapse to rehab to relapse and so on, featuring two overdoses.
The film focuses initially mostly on the father, played by Steve Carell with an air of controlled and restrained despair and sceptical hope, conveying an unlimited love behind his rational exterior, complete with outbursts of frustration and a growing sense of quiet helplessness. Carell’s performance might come across as a little cold but it burns beneath a surface in an all-consuming fire. His perspective is that of incomprehension, of an effort to get closer to the mystery of what brings this gifted boy to self-destruct and to being unable to get out of the vicious circle – which the real-life Nic seems to have done now, by the way. Beautiful Boy does not attempt to portray what addiction feels like, it looks on from the outside, from up close or further away but always with the sense of an unbreachable distance. What is happening to the young man cannot be understood – so how can he be helped.
Superstar-in-the-making Timothee Chalamet plays Nic and he becomes the film’s force field. Watching him go from a happy, positive facade which in rare moments of undisturbed happiness is revealed as part of his core being, through various stages of destruction and rebuilding to a (almost) final act of self-dissolution is breath-taking. Chalamet perfectly conveys Nic’s despair as well as his hope, his restlessness, fear, shame, longing and self-deception, but most importantly his character’s constant struggle to understand himself what’s going on, his lack of understanding that mirrors his father’s but is even rawer, more existential, a matter of life and death. Viewed from the outside – in a sense even by himself – Chalamet’s Nic is a study in a young man’s struggle with himself, with forces he cannot control of even grasp. His performance coupled with the steady though equally helpless Carell as his opposite is what carries the film and makes it memorable.
And yet, unlike its award-winning predecessor, Beautiful Boy fails to achieve the same kind of raw emotion, does not have its harrowing effect. Part of this is due to the distance it keeps up and has to keep up because of its point of view. However, van Groeningen is at fault, too. To clear are his intentions, to transparent the narrative devices the film employs, such as David’s discovery of Nic’s journal detailing his drug career in rather unauthentic looking statements, the almost mechanical juxtapositions of David’s despair and Nic’s struggles, the sometimes rather bland flashbacks aiming at establishing the cliché-heavy contrast between the „happy child“ and the struggling adolescent, and the heavy-handed use of music, mostly classic rock and pop, always perfectly fitting the situation and enhancing the emotion already established in the scene, giving some of them a „too much“ kind of feel, culminating in the longing notes of Henryk Górecki’s third symphony at the end which drowns what should be the film’s most haunting scenes into a see that reaches the shores of kitsch.
And none of this is necessary: van Groeningen could just have trusted Chalamet, Carell and an excellent supporting cast led by Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan as Nic’s stepmother and mother, respectively, to carry the film and tell the story. Instead he adds easily recognisable and somewhat manipulative narrative devices, aimed at enhancing something that needs no enhancement. Less would have been more in this case and might have turned a captivating story and memorable performances into a devastating, harrowing, moving and painfully honest masterpiece.