Journalist David Sheff (Carell) is understandably proud of his 18-year-old son’s accomplishments, which included getting accepted to multiple colleges. But young Nic (Chalamet) has been experimenting with drugs for years and has now become dangerously addicted to crystal meth, derailing those plans, despite one stint in rehab after another.
Director Felix van Groeningen (who adapted the script with Luke Davies) makes an interesting choice by essentially joining the narrative in the middle, with Nic already 18 and hooked. The movie then artfully flashes back to images of father and son when Nic was younger, conveying the whole range of flooding memories that the former experiences as he seeks to alleviate his kid’s pain and turmoil.
“Beautiful Boy” (the title of both David Sheff’s book and a John Lennon song, which is, indeed, used) isn’t just about those two characters, although they remain front and center throughout. Beyond an unflinching portrait at addiction — and how meth thwarts traditional treatment approaches — the movie plays as an awards-bait-y showcase for Carell, again amply demonstrating his chops as a dramatic actor; and Chalamet, who is having a moment and then some, after last year’s breakout twofer in “Call Me By Your Name” and “Lady Bird.”
There are lesser roles for Maura Tierney as David’s wife and Nic’s stepmother; and Amy Ryan — in a very different screen reunion with Carell, her former “The Office” co-star — as Nic’s mom, who can’t help second-guessing her ex, and vice versa. Timothy Hutton also has what feels like an appropriate cameo, given the similarities between this film and “Ordinary People,” which also dealt with the struggles of an upper-middle-class family through a troubled son and his confused parents.
Although slowly paced, the movie does convey a sense of tension and unease throughout, thanks to the gnawing uncertainty about when Nic will have his next lapse. The addiction, in a way, becomes something like the shark in “Jaws” — a lurking presence, made all the more unnerving because you never know when it’s going to rear its head.
“I don’t know how to help him,” David blurts out at one point, grappling with the realization that merely loving his son might not be enough.
To its credit, “Beautiful Boy” doesn’t reassure its audience with the false comfort of easy answers. But it still feels, ultimately, like an earnest and relatively minor wrinkle on a stark, emotional, all-too-familiar story.
“Beautiful Boy” opens Oct. 12 in the U.S. It’s rated R.