Based on the autobiographical books by journalist Bill Sheff (Steve Carell) and his son Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet), Beautiful Boy chronicles a teenage Nic's addiction to drugs, and his family's heartbreaking attempts to guide him through recovery. The film also stars Maura Tierney as Bill's wife, and Amy Ryan as his ex-wife.
Bill makes every attempt, rational and otherwise, to understand his son's addiction and prevent his relapses. What happened to the Nic he used to know? Timeline hops show us scenes of a younger Nic from Bill's point of view, and the contrast between who his son was and who his son has become complement the snakes and ladders nature of this recovery story.
Carell's character is reminiscent of his 2007 Dan in Real Life role: a writer who just wants the best for his kids, similarly approached as patient and loving. Here, the stakes are higher, and the emotions run deeper, and the layers are more satisfying.
The family's heartache is a mostly a quiet pain. There are few flare-ups, and no singular over-the-top Hail Mary scream-fest that flips a switch and propels us to the convenient happy ending we've come to expect from stories like this. Beautiful Boy underlines that addiction is not a linear descent, and recovery isn't a linear ascent.
There's a similarly light touch given to the visual details. Other than outdated technology and a few pieces of era-appropriate flashback attire, the early 2000s serving as the present day is barely noticable. Likewise, nuanced lighting choices that punctuate harsh moments and add depth to before-and-after scenes are used sparingly.
Everyone wants Nic to recover - even Nic wants to, sometimes - but everyone is helpless, a fact that becomes progressively harder to face as time goes on. Nic's fits and starts are as frustrating for the viewer as they are for Bill. Late in the film we learn that Nic's kid siblings know exactly what's happening, and we watch Bill making an agonizing choice to prevent himself from enabling Nic.
The Oscar buzz for this one is loud, and rightfully so. Both Carell and Chalamet are real contenders, and the way director/co-screenwriter Felix van Groeningen lets the story breathe without any patches of tedium could earn him a nod as well.
It's not a spoiler to know that the real Nic Sheff got sober (after all, this story is partially based on his own account), but the closing credits inform us that he's only been so for eight years. After all we've just seen, it feels like a blip on this rollercoaster timeline of addiction. And therein lies the message: nobody's story of recovery is ever really over.
Sharilyn has written on comedy, television, and film for publications such as The Toronto Star, The A.V. Club, and Vanity Fair, as well as on CBC Radio. You can follow her on Twitter at @sharilynj.