Review: BEAUTIFUL BOY (2019) [Leeds International Film Festival]

The latest Timothée Chalamet film was always going to be a big draw on the festival circuit, particularly at the Leeds International Film Festival, where Call Me By Your Name (2017) on the previous year’s programme, became a quick fan favourite. A sold-out audience for Beautiful Boy (2018) at the Vue at The Light might have been disappointed to not see another Steve Carell comedy (viewers of the haunting Foxcatcher in 2014 will know Carell can do much more than feel-good and gross-out), but instead got a well-meaning, but ultimately mediocre family drama.

Beautiful Boy, directed by Felix Van Groeningen, is a story of a father and son torn apart and is based on two memoirs from a father and son (David and Nic Sheff) dealing with the latter’s addiction to crystal meth. Nic is good-looking, bright, talented and heading for college, David is a successful Rolling Stone writer, with a lovely family, an artistic partner (Maura Tierney) and a distant ex-wife Amy Ryan (N.B. The women are woefully under-served here). The future is bright, but as the stark opening scene explains, Nic is a drug addict and David is powerless to help.

Drug addiction devastates people of all social classes and races. It isolates, and the fact that this film does too, is part of its failure. The non-linear narrative reduces the scenes to mere mini episodes that appear disjointed rather than strung together with any meaning, and there’s an overwhelming detached tone to the whole thing, that adds a strange, sun-kissed glow to horrible proceedings. The soundtrack is left to do most of the heavy lifting, but my favourite Massive Attack track ‘Protection’ is cruelly dropped into a scene like a clanger, telling you what and how to feel, and a terribly misjudged sex scene in a shower seemed to be gratuitously attempting to gain some ground on the lusty, good-looking, drug-fuelled antics of films like Drugstore Cowboy (1989) or Go (1999).

There’s a powerful message about the bonds of fathers and sons and the horrors of drug addiction relayed here, and there’s no doubting that Chalamet and Carell give equally good performances in this family drama, but they are both poorly served by a film that doesn’t seem to want to get too mucky when dealing with a dark and life-altering subject matter. No detail is given in the recoveries or relapses; the highs are few and the lows are scarce. The film could do some real good in showing the realities of the condition and the inadequacies of the provisions for getting clean, instead we just get lots of scenes of Carell typing away, looking writerly and somber.

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