– Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
“For those few soul-freezing moments, you get a glimpse of the great actor
Timothée Chalamet is going to be”
– Phillip Martin, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
“…an intoxicating, frightening and emotionally honest essay on the self-destructive impulses of the nascent artist”
“It was impossible in Beautiful Boy not to take notice of Chalamet’s seemingly undauntable talent, as he channeled the tortures of the drug-addicted damned”– Peter Canavese, Groucho Reviews
Well, this seems like a rather unorthodox start to a review. These reviews seem pretty fitting for Beautiful Boy and seem to be consist among the praises of the film EXCEPT…. you’ve been bamboozled.
You see these aren’t from reviews about Beautiful Boy but rather the 1995 film, The Basketball Diaries starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The two films are almost as if history is repeating itself as the based of true stories drug addiction films have similar reception, for as of writing this, the films have identical IMDb scores and comparable ratings from: Google Users, Ebert reviews, Common Sense Media with greater disparity but similar disappointing ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. While both films have different approaches to similar content I don’t think Beautiful Boy does anything to merit having a greater legacy or lasting impact than the often forgotten Basketball Diaries. While possibly also generating a sophomoric rise for Chalamet and having a genuine human struggle that will really resonate with some, yet falls short for many others.
What’s Not to Like about this film
Maybe it is just me, but am I the only one that feels that most A24 films visually look the same. Any cinematographers out there, could you help me out, is this something you agree with and why do you think so? I don’t know whether it’s because A24 films are filmed predominately with the Arri Alexa Mini and Arri Alexa SXT, or if they tend to favor natural lighting designs, or if there locations and color schemes seem to often incorporate neutral colors or if it is just standard shot composition that most fall under. While some A24 films do look exceptional, the point is Beautiful Boy looks… just like a typical A24 film, despite actually being an Amazon Studios film. Its visuals are passable with enough alluring locations to have some enticing shots saving it from being a dull presentation.
While visually pretty standard, the editing and narrative structure is far from it. Where the Basketball Diaries is your standard story structure, with rising actions leading to the climax and subsequent actions leading to the denouement. Beautiful Boy is off those tracks, it’s authentic take follows the wild ups and down that keep audience attraction from the dramatic tension of anticipating fates tides will turn. It almost feels like Beautiful Boy exists as a montage of the entire events that transpired. Both models work, and don’t denote one being better than the other, the relationship is that Beautiful Boy is to The Basketball Diaries as Dunkirk is to Hacksaw Ridge. Both experimental and traditional structures can work it just depends on your cup of tea, and the film’s execution of its ideas.
With Beautiful Boy having a wavelength story structure, your enjoyment of the film might be dependent on how you measure that wave. For some the wave is more defined by increasing amplitude, drug addiction is a horrid beast to confront and the more clean Nic becomes the more difficult the temptation and the withdrawal symptoms persist and relapse has to bare more consequences or repreccousions. This is what I really enjoyed about the film, like the myth of Sisyphus forced to forever roll that boulder up a hill, Nic and David Sheff show persistence through facing futility is a gripping tale, that earns its emotional heart. However, to others the wave will be measured by frequency. A lot of the complaints lofted at the film is its repetition a criticism that is fair. The severity and the stakes grow in incremental fashion with the next “stage” looming overhead that the progress can feel slow-paced. The film fails to generate enough unexpected turns or deviations and the severity never gets too costly, as the film does to some degree feel that it is pulling its punches.
One department that could have been utilized more was the make-up department. Let’s face it, I’m sure many crystal meth addicts wished they looked like Timothee Chalamet who even at his worst looks like he just pulled an all nighter studying for his SAT rather than being at the brink of death. For me that’s why in part Chalamet performance is so impressive, because his character’s self destruction and inner turmoil is all expressed through him and his mannerisms.
However, the issue of make-up and not having Chalamet transcend into a reflection of how truly gruesome his addiction is a more complex problem. Beautiful Boy is very much so tied to the perspective of David Sheff. Maybe there is a degree of David in denial of his “Beautiful Boy” becoming corrupted by this drug. More so, one scene puts the audience in the shoes of David where you have to decide whether Nic has begun relapsing again with no definitive answer given. Chalamet tame outward appearance can seem as a cheaping effect to keep Chalamet easily sympathetic, and could be part of why some seem that scenes romanticize drug-use.
In truth, I can understand why Chalamet doesn’t look like the typical crystal meth “after” picture… but…. why doesn’t anyone else. While maybe presenting an unflattering picture of your subject and not fitting narrative purpose is justifying enough to not go through the hassle but you have multiple minor characters and large settings of rehabs and group therapy sessions and nobody looks much too gross. My candidate of someone who could have visually shown how awful drugs affect a person is cheeseburger girl. It can’t just be me who, when David approaches this girl knows for narrative purposes this had to be someone doing drugs but thought it was rather a bold assumption based off her outward appearance. I mean I’ve probably awkwardly waited to meet someone at the mall before… is Steve Carell going to approach me and ask what it’s like taking drugs? I feel like no matter how you slice it, this movie could have done more to support the goal of showing the horrors of drug abuse without becoming a lecture.
What’s to like about this film
This section will be shorter, not because the film is bad, it’s just the talking points are more expected. Beautiful Boy is a phenomenally raw experience that attempts to capture life more then create a heart-wrenching and manipulative narrative. Nic Sheff humanizes drug addiction in a compelling way, that is a kind and likable person at not just the startpoint but throughout the film. Even with that said, the film doesn’t shy away from the complexity of drug addiction especially in how much is a fight against a foreign substance and how much of it is a fight against itself. One of the great takeaways from the film is the idea that “drugs and alcohol isn’t your problem, that’s how you’ve been treating your problem”.
The performances from the cast are as good as what’s been touted, and the film finds a way to be informative and persuasive without feeling too melodramatic or methodical in its approach. It’s a film that refuses to hand hold the audience and confine them to feel a specific way or agree with characters motives or actions. Even though I’m sure some unfortunate audience members can relate to being familiar or close to a situation such as this all too well but the perspectives of the film allow the messages to be somewhat transformative. From David we get at its roots a thematic exploration of parenting. Under these extreme circumstances is David forced to confront the length of parenthood and decide the limitations in which a parent is responsible for their child and when they have to let that child be responsible for themselves. While in Nic’s perspective the film seems suggestive that Nic’s drug addiction is equally parts a mental condition. Nic’s motivations aren’t minimized to simply achieve a high but fill a persistent hole that his art, writing, accomplishments, romance, family or anything can seem to fill to the degree the drug does.
There are many reasons to like about this cathartic film, and though I’ve not necessarily raved about it I do certainly recommend it. It’s a great story, that deserves to be heard and was an interesting way of telling this story. I know this is one that some are wondering if it is of Oscar caliber to that I say…… ehh…. enjoy it for what it is. Personally, I haven’t seen the entire field but based off precedent I would say I don’t see it being in the Best Picture (Popular or otherwise) and doubt, but wouldn’t be surprised to see some representation either through Chalamet or adapted screenplay.
I hope you enjoyed the film, hope you’ve enjoyed this review, and I hope you’re not doing the drugs. Thanks for stopping by now if you don’t mind me, I think I owe someone a response.
Main image is from Beautiful Boy (2018) [credit: Amazon Studios]