Arresting portrait of a father's love

Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet (both standing) give heart-breaking performances in Beautiful Boy.
Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet (both standing) give heart-breaking performances in Beautiful Boy.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

REVIEW / DRAMA BIOGRAPHY

BEAUTIFUL BOY (M18)

120 minutes/Now showing / 4 stars

The story: In this adaptation of two memoirs - one written by writer David Sheff and the other from his son Nic - Steve Carell plays David, a comfortably middle-class man whose son (Timothee Chalamet) is a methamphetamine addict. In flashback, Nic as a boy is shown to be sensitive, popular and loved by his family, before growing into a teenager who seeks to get high at any time, using anything he can find. In episodes taking place over several years, David's life is defined by a series of emergencies which find Nic either in a hospital or in police custody. 

In too many drug biographies, one important detail is left out: the fact that drugs seem amazing to the user.

Not this time. Nic (Chalamet) is a methamphetamine addict not because he is weak, masochistic or damaged. He is an addict because drugs work and he loves what they do for him. 

"I don't feel like I have a disease. I put myself here," he says in one scene, begging to be defined by more than his addiction, yet painfully aware that his identity and his need to get high are merging into one.

In this gorgeously shot, quietly arresting portrait of a relationship that tests the limits of unconditional love - how much should a parent take before he cuts ties and walks away? - everything rests on buying the idea that David loves his son and Nic is worthy of that love. 

Here, Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen, making his English-language debut following his Oscar-nominated doomed-romance drama, The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012), takes a couple of liberties to make sure audiences come along for the ride.

Nic, for example, is no scab-encrusted, sunken-eyed, hollow-cheeked stereotype of the meth-head. He is the luminously beautiful Timothee Chalamet, who becomes even more delicately alluring over time. David, meanwhile, is a St Bernard of a dad: warm, fuzzy, eager to come to the rescue. 

These are deeply airbrushed images of how addiction plays out, but Groeningen casts a spell, helped by heart-breaking central performances from Carell and Chalamet. 

Dreamy songs from Massive Attack, Neil Young and Sigur Ros drive the scenes and there is not a lot of dialogue here.

Therein lies David's agony: He is a writer and words - or anything else, for that matter - are useless. Words whisper, but the meth screams. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2018, with the headline 'Arresting portrait of a father's love'. Print Edition | Subscribe