Billed as a drama showing the effect that a young man’s drug addiction has on his family, Beautiful Boy features the use of heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine, but the film’s real drug is narcissism. Scored to anesthetizing pop music, with burnished vistas of the San Francisco Bay Area, including spacious, well-appointed homes and gleaming automobiles, Beautiful Boy is hooked on the conspicuous drug of cushy affluence. It was made on a $25 million budget by film workers, shall we say, with high-minded ideas of being topical yet who are remote from the spiritual and cultural causes of pharmacological escape.
Because millennial filmmaking is primarily based on escapism — or is generally unresponsive to broad social concerns — Beautiful Boy is distracted from the very problem it hopes to expose. Film actors Steve Carell as the father, Timothée Chalamet as the son, Amy Ryan as the divorced mother, and the director Felix van Groeningen are all self-medicating. They insist on depicting the contemporary crisis as a sun-dappled disturbance of otherwise swanky American complaisance.
The movie is based on the real-life memoirs of David Sheff, a New York Times and Rolling Stone writer, and his son, Nic Sheff. From the moment Carell is introduced as Sheff, using his privilege to consult a drug expert, the film reveals its position of casual, taken-for-granted favor. Sheff asks, “My two big questions are: What is it doing to him? What can I do to help him?” This entreaty doesn’t make Sheff into Everyparent. First, because Carell’s arch comic persona is limiting, but mostly because the 18-year-old son, Nic Sheff, is impersonated by Chalamet, who is currently cinema’s foremost figure of insufferable privilege.
The pampered child is already a patented Chalamet type. He comes ready-made with obnoxiousness and spoiled-rotten audacity. Chalamet, of all young actors, should never have made a movie titled “Beautiful Boy” because his curly-haired adorableness and moony-eyed demeanor too obviously fit Hollywood’s white middle-class, self-flattering ideal (Vogue magazine worships him).
The recent young-adult romance In a Relationship, by Sam Boyd, featured actor Patrick Gibson in the supporting performance of the year as a boy in love with a girl whose romantic fervor surpasses his own horniness. Gibson’s sensitive shock recalls a second chapter of Anthony Michael Hall’s character in The Breakfast Club. It’s a beautifully felt characterization of masculine sensitivity. But Van Groeningen skates over Nic’s intimate feelings (privacy is left to his cartoonish journal scribblings).
Yes, Chalamet skillfully evokes the promising brightness that most parents see in their offspring as a reflection of their own overflowing hope and egos. But unlike Gibson, Chalamet risks a new kind of obnoxious precociousness, as in last year’s Call Me by Your Name, in which the only surprising moment was his snotty, scrounged-up grimace, mocking the man he was attracted to — a gesture of adolescent self-deception. (Second most hateful was his indifference to his father’s own bizarre coming-out confession.)
It’s the pampered-class self-indulgence throughout Beautiful Boy that makes it insufferable. (A rehab-center poster reads: “The Three Cs: I didn’t cause it. I can’t control it. I can’t cure it.” Then, actress LisaGay Hamilton drops in to give the black surrogate “Pity Me” speech.) The film coddles a politically irresponsible snowflake generation every bit as much as David carelessly coddles Nic. Earlier this year, I saluted the rerelease of Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles for illuminating the social and personal follies of self-righteous parenting. Beautiful Boy contradicts that truth.
With a solemn epigraph advising “addiction treatment is massively underfunded and underregulated,” Beautiful Boy gloms onto the nation’s drug epidemic, but the film is over-the-top and out of touch. A bourgie music track (including John Lennon’s cloying title song) exposes its Boomer self-importance. This is a social-problem movie that only self-absorbed, procreating yuppie scum could love.