Friday 18 January 2019

The high-low country: "Beautiful Boy"

After a run of films going out of their way to seek out more diverse perspectives, Beautiful Boy presents as Hollywood reverting to its fallback dynamic of dads and lads. So committed is it to this axis - which, lest we forget, 50% of the world's population has existed on at some time - that it takes as its basis two memoirs drawing on the same set of events, one penned by a dad (journo David Sheff's Beautiful Boy), one by the son he witnessed succumbing to the ravages of crystal meth (Nic Sheff's Tweak). This gives Belgian-import director Felix van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) and writer Luke Davies (Lion) a choice of lived-through, much-considered perspectives to cut between. One is familiar from countless afterschool specials: that of the dad (here, Steve Carell as Sheff Sr.) looking on helplessly as his progeny slips into the long dark night of narcotics abuse. The other is somehow less familiar, but no less valid or revealing: that of the punk kid (Timothée Chalamet as Nic) actively trying to get out from under his father's thumb, to escape his imprint. 

This is, for starters, the first film to have fully worked out what to do with Carell on his less effective setting of "normie". The actor's a little buffer than usual here, and we soon sense something a touch oppressive in his straight edge - how David's doughty devotion to his son might well have seemed suffocating. (It's the tragic flipside of Michael Scott's overzealous romantic pursuits.) When he starts haranguing Nic in a rehab suite ("This is not us! This is not who we are!") we know that "who we are" is exactly that from which Nic sought to flee - yet van Groeningen's even-handed approach is such that the camera holds for a beat to spot the loving father inwardly mourning his sudden loss of control. The film cuts both ways, and in doing so, it goes deeper than most. After the initial introductions, we get the backstory - the slow and sad decline of a bookish, sensitive kid who began popping pills and shooting up in search of an excitement utterly lacking from the Sheffs' insistently stable household. 

Pause Beautiful Boy at any point, and it would undoubtedly assume the look of staid middlebrow drama: it's in the grain of the Sheffs' tastefully wood-panelled San Francisco retreat, and van Groeningen shows his hand to an extent in casting Timothy Hutton - the troubled young lead of 1980's Ordinary People, cinematic father to Beautiful Boy's son - as the medic schooling Carell's curious David in the highs and lows of addiction. Yet the direction is also open to experimentation. Van Groeningen ports across the idiosyncratic, non-linear editing strategies of his earlier film, while cranking a stirringly diverse soundtrack up to 11: yes, we get an agonising snippet of Lennon's title song, but also ominous Gaspar Noe-like parps as dad discovers the drug diary son has helpfully left lying around, and electronic palpitations as David arrives at the hospital Nic has been raced to, only to learn the patient has just as quickly checked himself out. Davies, too, takes risks, throwing in the kinds of scenes we may not be expecting from this type of film (and thereby suggesting a wider-reaching honesty): it's David himself trying drugs in a bid to trip a mile in his son's shoes, an aside that allows Carell, for a brief, precious moment, to be manically funny again. 

Honing in so extensively on this axis means a lot has had to be pushed to the sidelines. It seems a perverse crime to recruit Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan, two of the most criminally underused actresses in recent American film, and then, well, underuse them, setting Tierney (as David's second wife Karen) to painting and supplementary childcare duties, limiting Ryan (as David's first wife and Nic's mother) to long-distance telephone calls. It's a two-hour movie, so there should be room for everyone, yet you sense Davies getting nervous about the responsibility he can place on these (presumably still very much extant) women's shoulders. If the film simplifies at all, it may be in line with its sources: that it reduces this story - as maybe David did in his mind - to a one-man mission in the war on drugs. (No boy left behind.) In other respects, the film is surprisingly strong. At all times, we're made aware of the part the Sheffs' privilege played in what was ultimately a success story, with a happy ending: there would be a very different movie to be made on this subject about the relationship between a black father and son just down the road in inner-city L.A., or indeed from the relationship between the black mother and daughter we hear about in the closing stretch (a piquant cameo here from Lisa Gay Hamilton). One of the tougher-to-swallow morals of the Sheffs' story is that money - even journalism money, whatever that is - bought these boys a second chance that many others simply don't get. 

What's crucial is that Davies (whose own drug memoir Candy was filmed in Australia, with the late Heath Ledger, in 2006) and van Groeningen have understood exactly what this specific story was about: a father learning to be there for his son rather than seeking to save him, and a son growing to realise the implications of this for himself and the father-son relationship. Beautiful Boy makes a particular point of those moments where David and Nic part company - at airports, clinics, college dorms, on the waves while out surfing - partly as it gestures towards an explanation for Nic's addiction (the kid never had to wave bye-bye to meth, until he realised how toxic it was), but mostly because it sets and punches up those moments when they're returned to one another's arms. What we notice at these reunions is the extent to which the cherubic Chalamet has fallen into dishevelment, the most reliable gauge as to where we are on van Groeningen's sometimes tricky and complicated timeline. The real fix, when it comes, will be a measure of tough love, which isn't often dramatised in American movies, and rarely dramatised this well. Yet even the fort/da game that precedes it reveals a truth, one that clearly sustained this relationship through its toughest challenges, and sustains van Groeningen's film through its softer, more conventional stretches: for better and worse, these guys were inseparable.

Beautiful Boy opens in selected cinemas from today.

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