Film Review: Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell Are Magic in 'Beautiful Boy'

Caution: may contain minor spoilers

If you have never lost a loved one, you can never fully understand. If you have never known a loved one fall victim to a drug addiction, this film is not for you. And yet, those of us who cannot fully understand can only try our damnest to.

Less of a film with a storyline that will grip you from beginning to end, this is a portrait of Nic and David’s lives, and how drug addiction affected both of them. This is a character sketch. That does not make it any less interesting, exciting or important. 

Fresh off the fireworks he set in Call Me By Your Name, the whole world and I held our breaths waiting for Timothée Chalamet’s next film, hoping to dear God that the acting chops he showed us in his breakout film were not a fluke. Chalamet comes back full force proving to us all that he is the real thing, and he isn’t going anywhere. 

As Nic Sheff, Chalamet looks quite different in this film. He’s grown out his messy curls to the end of his neck. He lost twenty pounds for when his character is most afflicted with his addiction, and in some scenes, his spine sticks out from his t-shirt; in others, his too-large clothes hang on him like they would on a scarecrow. The amazing energy and fire that had made Elio a musical prodigy and bibliophile has been quieted, always lurking under the surface and ready to leer during Nic’s occasional angry outbursts. 

David Sheff was played by Steve Carell, who, as always, was fantastic. Carell garners great respect, and he’s a great comedian, don’t get me wrong, but when he does genres like drama, those are the films to sit up and pay attention to. Sheff is a journalist, and he reminds me of so many writers I know—terrible at expressing how they feel to the ones they love, and knowing only through writing the right thing say. Perfectionist to a fault, and at times controlling and possessing a crazy intensity perfect to hone in on in writing. David loves Nic to pieces, but slowly, he recognizes that perhaps his love has smothered his son. 

Chalamet, despite his young age, is a wonderful match for Carell. Chalamet has the same intensity and energy, and the famous scene, included in one of the trailers, of Nic and David talking in a breakfast place, becomes fraught with multiple meanings once you watch the movie through.

All the emotions David has play across Carell’s face like a symphony of its own. How could you do this to the one who has raised you? Did I do this to you? Did I screw up while I raised you to make you this way? Nic’s emotions towards his father were equally understandable, perhaps more so for myself, since I am closer to his age. Nic knows that he disappointed his father with his addiction, yet he wonders if his father loves him for him, or for all that he has done to make David proud.

As soon as it becomes apparent that Nic is addicted to drugs, mostly crystal meth, David begins to tackle the problem with the point of view of a journalist. He tries to answer all the questions of who, what, when, why, where, how and tries to come up with an appropriate solution. For Nic, as David and watchers learn over time, many of these questions stay unanswered. 

The women in the film play no small part. Maura Tierney as Nic’s stepmother was amazingly supportive and loving, despite being David’s second wife. She protects her younger children fiercely from the absence of their older brother, while also reeling from the loss of him, as a woman who loved him as her own. Amy Ryan as Nic’s mother also has an interesting arc, every bit as loving as David, yet forced to sidelines due to geography. Even though she has far fewer scenes with Chalamet than Carell, Ryan properly conveys the undying belief in her son to get better that so many mothers have. 

I, like David, like anyone would, tried to understand what about Nic and his life made him turn to drugs for solace, for escape. Nic says in one scene about crystal meth, “I felt better than I ever had, so I just kept on doing it.” What is it about Nic’s life that makes him want to feel better?

Nic has a loving family, a good education and a bright future. As we come to see, David has money. He lives near San Francisco, somewhere close to hills of wildflowers and grass, near the beach and inside a huge house with rustic wood finishings that gesture towards luxurious log cabins. Of course, money doesn’t always equal happiness, but money definitely makes a lot of things come more easily, happiness sometimes being one of them. In the face of all this, what could Nic lack? What could he possibly want? 

We never know the answer, and we never see what Nic may lack. Maybe only Nic is privy to that information, or maybe Nic himself doesn’t know. Maybe not knowing the answer is the point. 

As people living in a post-Shakespearean world, we all know the storyline of a tragedy well. The protagonist starts off in a high position, the protagonist has a major flaw and due to the flaw, the protagonist falls. Many Hollywood films have this basic tragic plot and end it with redemption. In this scenario, Nic would have a flaw, his fall would be his drug addiction, and with enough courage, hard work and support, he would have a full recovery, culminating in a touching scene with his father. This is not a redemption story. 

To have a redemption would imply that Nic had flaws, or he lacked something—that it was his fault, or his father’s fault, that he became a meth addict. David at one point goes to see some kind of specialist who explains the effect meth has on the brain. That scene more than anything explains that Nic is not at fault for his addiction; it is the drug's fault, having taken over all his thoughts and actions since the first moment he let it into his body. Nic has no flaw because the drug addiction is not a fall. It is simply a part of his story. 

You could say that curiosity killed the cat. Well then, it’s a good thing that the cat had nine lives. In this case, the cat almost ran out of lives. College students, artists, writers, everyone are taught to be curious. Only with curiosity about the world does one learn and grow. Can you really blame Nic for his curiosity? He, like so many others, must have thought, “Just this once, just to try, just to see what it’s like.” Can you really say, faced with the same curiosity, that you would have reacted differently?

With the lack of a great Hollywood ending, one wonders did Nic ever get over his addiction? Well, good thing this film is a biography because one can easily Google Nic Sheff and find that he’s still alive and well. However, don’t let the fact that the “feel-good” moments happened off-screen get to you, Beautiful Boy is a darn good movie.