Bruce Steele: It looks like Timothée Chalamet, who plays a drug-addicted youth from a well-off family in the new film Beautiful Boy, is poised for a second consecutive Oscar nomination. It's a more difficult movie to watch, though, than last year's romantic Call Me By Your Name. How do you think audiences will respond?
Edwin Arnaudin: If they see it, I think they’ll fall hard. The presence of Steve Carell helps, giving perhaps his best non-prosthetic-aided dramatic performance as real-life freelance writer David Sheff. He and young Chalamet, playing David’s son Nic, score one powerful moment after another. For me, they’re one of the year’s best cinematic duos.
Bruce: They're both excellent, and Nic's extreme shifts in personality give Chalamet so many gripping, scary, heartbreaking moments. And it's such a timely film. Even though Nic's drug of choice is meth, rather than opioids, everyone who has ever known an addict of any kind will recognize his struggles with recovery and relapse, and his father's desperate but repeatedly fruitless efforts to help him get clean. This is not your standard-issue Hollywood recovery story. It's downhill almost all the way.
Edwin: I’m on the outside when it comes to navigating friends/family battling addiction, but from the second-hand accounts I’ve heard over the years, Beautiful Boy feels thoroughly honest and accurate. Belgian director Felix van Groeningen is the right person to take on this subject matter, too. His 2013 drama The Broken Circle Breakdown has its flaws, but delivering emotional gut-punches isn’t one of them. Were there places in his latest film that especially knocked you out?
Bruce: Well, here's where I have to put the breaks on the praise a bit, because while I thought the actors were at the top of their game, I was never really knocked out. The scene in the diner when a downward-spiraling Nic and desperate David realize neither can give the other what he wants is perhaps the most compelling interaction between the two, but even then I felt somewhat locked out. From the start, it was a bit like I had tuned in late and missed the emotional history that connected these characters. The frequent flashbacks illustrating David's love for his son at various ages (played by younger actors) were more nostalgia than foundation. The stakes would have been higher and we might have better understood the son had we seen more of Chalamet's Nic before addiction took over his life, don't you think?
Edwin: I think a little bit more background would have helped, namely regarding Nic’s descent into addiction, but suspect that a chronological approach — which I realize you’re not necessarily requesting — would have made it a more conventional film. I like how Nic’s triumphs and relapses trigger memories for David, as well as a few for Nic himself. That mode of storytelling feels honest to the material and seemingly to the workings of the addict’s mind and those of his/her rattled support system. Piecing those past experiences together with what this father and son relationship has become, as well as its effects on David’s wife Karen (Maura Tierney) and Nic’s mom Vicki (Amy Ryan), yields frequent heartbreaking moments. But I agree that the filmmakers have crafted a sustained melancholy with regular wincing as opposed to a few mammoth, breathless revelations — and think that choice, intentional or not, only adds to its unconventionality.
Bruce: That's a good analysis of the filmmakers' storytelling decisions, which may have been complicated by the attempt to crash together two source memoirs: Nic's Tweak and David's Beautiful Boy, issued by separate publishers in 2008. It appears little of Nic's made it into the movie, since the film adheres chiefly to David's point of view. It even incorporates the John Lennon song from which David's book and the movie take their title, with the much-quoted line, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Indeed, the soundtrack often called attention to itself.
Edwin: It’s a strong collection of tunes, but some of them come off as a bit intrusive, including a father-son car headbanging session set to Nirvana’s "Territoral Pissings” and a pleasant but somewhat obvious pre-relapse montage paired with Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” Perhaps due to its more laid-back vibe, the Lennon number actually felt like one of the more seamless inclusions for me. Was it a bit too on-the-nose for you?
Bruce: Actually, the Lennon seemed perfectly placed to me, what with the title tie-in and that familiar but no less true aphorism. But some of the other music struck me as flaunting the music budget (Bowie, Nirvana) or pushing for unearned emotions. What I took to be the original score (and may have been existing music I'm unfamiliar with) on several occasions went loudly ominous in off-putting ways, and the decision to use a long section of Gorecki's weep-inducing Third Symphony (with Dawn Upshaw's amazing vocal from 1992) for the finale struck me as just short of pulling out Pachelbel's "Canon" or Albinoni's “Adagio in G Minor" — which is to say, lazy and obvious. In short, I often felt like the music was trying to provide swells of feeling that the filmmakers feared (rightly so) weren't quite accomplished by the screenplay.
Edwin: Broken Circle Breakdown is about a husband and wife folk/bluegrass band, so perhaps in lieu of musicians in this cast, van Groeningen went a bit overboard on the song curation. I’ll forgive him, seeing as his visuals are so crisp and his command for pacing is so strong. Even after seeing his breakthrough film, I wasn’t expecting something so polished and humane, in part because Beautiful Boy hasn’t received much of an awards-season push. It only got a brief sidebar Q&A in Entertainment Weekly — a key rubric, I know — as opposed to a feature, which made me think Amazon Studios and the press weren’t taking it seriously.
Bruce: The pacing is indeed consistent, without lagging, but the arc of the story is rather flat for an Oscar contender. The Academy tends to prefer movies and performances that build up and up to a big finish, so this movie's adherence to the painful repetitions of the truth of its subject matter may put it at a disadvantage compared with, say, Call Me By Your Name or Foxcatcher. I would like to think it will connect with audiences whose lives have been upended by drug abuse, but this is a high-end story and opioid addiction disproportionately affects less-advantaged families who may never encounter this movie. That's a shame, since despite my reservations, I think it's a remarkable achievement. I'll give it a B-plus.
Edwin: The filmmakers include some chilling health statistics before rolling the end credits, suggesting there may be some tie-ins afoot to aid organizations working to combat addiction. But yes, the bleak reality it sets forth may be too unwieldy for Academy voters and viewers — which I agree is unfortunate. Still, Beautiful Boy feels like it will makes its way to support groups and a decent number of folks who would benefit from seeing it, but I too fear its strong relevant message won’t reach nearly enough of its intended targets. Those who do encounter it, however, are likely to be moved and may even give it a higher grade than my B-plus.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Now playing at Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and Grail Moviehouse
(Photos: Amazon Studios)