A Breathtakingly Brutal “Beautiful Boy”

I’ll admit I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to sit through “Beautiful Boy” in its entirety without falling apart: I’ve known the Sheff family since Nic Sheff was nine years old. But actually, I did ok. Part of that is because Steve Carell & Timothée Chalamet didn’t try to impersonate David Sheff  & Nic, respectively. That helped me feel a little bit of distance from it. I was able to separate myself slightly from the people I know & the people being portrayed on screen. Or maybe it was just a coping mechanism I employed to make it through the movie without ending up in a puddle of tears in the movie theater. I don’t really know.

What I DO know is this:

Carell was outstanding. He captured the essence of David’s genuine warmth, unaffected charm & deep love for his family so aptly. Chalamet captured Nic’s sweet playfulness & soulful intellect. He did that thing that only the greatest actors can do: about 20 minutes in I completely forgot I was watching Hollywood’s latest IT Boy, the red carpet’s most unconventional stylist free style maker & Kid Cudi’s number one fan; I legitimately forgot I was watching an actor.

Instead, I was watching a young man, equal parts tender & tormented, living through addiction. Timothée does things with his face – I don’t know how exactly bc I’m not an actress so I don’t know how these things work – where he conveys a full range of emotions just by a slight dip & curl of a lip or furrow flick of a brow. It was both brutal and beautiful to witness…sort of like life itself.

It’s rare in movies to see drug addiction & the person addicted, portrayed as almost sympathetic players. Even in the moments when Nic is engaging in his worst behavior, your heart breaks for him. Chalamet finds a way to let Nic’s humanity shine through; it’s part of the brilliance of his acting gifts. There were moments during the movie, when the entire audience sort of let out a groan of heartbreak, disappointment, sadness because, collectively, we were rooting for him. But you never got the sense the audience had given up their empathy & hope for him. Despite it all, we remained on his side throughout. Just like his father.

Usually the drug use & actual HIGH portrayed in movies is slightly glorified. “Beautiful Boy” doesn’t do that. It’s unrelenting in its constant repetition of despair & then hope & then despair again & then hope again that happens in the cycle of addition & recovery. The movie makes you really feel, deep in your gut, that you are taking that emotional roller coaster ride with the Sheff family.

It’s also rare to see a movie where literally everyone in the cast is outstanding. The Timothy Hutton cameo was particularly satisfying; a nod to “Ordinary People” (god, we ALL had a crush on him back then & wanted to be the future ‘Lady Grantham’!). Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan were gut wrenching in their humanity. Even the young children were pitch perfect.

I’ve heard criticisms about director Felix Van Groeningen’s whiplash-like use of timeline & a heavy handed use of music. I disagree with those critiques. To the former, the repetitive back & forth to past/present helped create the sense of emotional chaos of the Sheff family’s reality; it served to highlight the constant yearning for what once was, the dire urgency of what currently is & the desperate searching for that ultimately elusive moment when it all started to go wrong. It was an exhausting ride. When I left the movie, I felt like I’d run a marathon (or what I imagine it feels like b’c Lulu doesn’t run!); I was emotionally & physically drained. And I think that was the point.

As for the music: it’s a huge part of the Sheffs’ life & it served as bookends between scenes which, given the aforementioned use of timeline, was useful. It also sort of helped my emotional state, tbh. The movie is so heavy; the music helped me to breathe through it. Music heals & I felt its restorative powers throughout.

Some have criticized that the movie doesn’t explain WHY Nic became an addict. But that’s the point: there IS no rational reason. Addiction is a disease & some people are wired in a way that makes them more susceptible to it than others. It can happen to anyone. That’s the utter horror of it all.

I’m always moved by any movie filmed in my hometown of San Francisco. Scenes on Haight Street, literally around the corner from my childhood home, were particularly poignant. Also, the scenes with the actor who played Nic at his youngest had me holding my breath, almost afraid to let my emotions out; he was close to the age Nic was when I first met him & looked just like him.

But I didn’t really cry until the scene with one of my favorite actresses, Lisa Gay Hamilton. After that, the tears just wouldn’t let up. And that last scene. I could barely breathe. It’s not giving anything away to say that Steve & Timothée managed to bring every human emotion of that moment to the surface for viewers. And they did it without saying a word. The entire audience shared a collective gasp & then a sigh. And then it was just sort of silent, save for all of the sniffles and nose blowing. It was as if we were tapped out of every emotion.

The fact that the audience knows that Nic is thriving & has been sober for 8 years doesn’t mean you leave the movie feeling good. You still feel the fall out of what the Sheff’s endured & the anxiety around how fragile sobriety is.

When I left the theater, I actually stood on the sidewalk for a moment; just stood there, not sure where to go or what to do. I couldn’t even really think straight. I felt numb. Just numb. I was depleted. I had nothing left…except for a tenuous thread of hope…which is really all you can have when it comes to addiction & recovery.

“Beautiful Boy” is not a movie you “enjoy”; you don’t go to see it to be entertained. It’s a movie that makes you think & feel & hurt & hope. It breaks your heart, while also reminding you of the power of conditional love of a truly beautiful family.

And one last thing & this is perhaps the most important (& a rule I follow in every movie tbh): Do not leave your seat until the very very very very very last credit rolls. I mean it. The very last credit. The. Very. Last. Credit. Thank me later…

…Later

11 thoughts on “A Breathtakingly Brutal “Beautiful Boy”

  1. This was the best review of the film. Thank you so very much. I love how you mentioned staying for the credits… all the credits. I was the one of only a few in the theater when I watched the film. When I left the theater there were two men debating on what to see. BB was one they were discussing but didn’t know anything about it. I gave them a quick overview, through my tears I might add, and made them promise to sit through every last one of the credits if they chose to see BB. Would love to know if they did. Thank you again.

  2. This movie and all of their books mean so very much to me. Thank you for writing such a heartfelt review of this most important movie. Your words were everything I experienced as a viewer and they touched me.

  3. I so appreciate your review. I’ve seen the movie 5 times and couldn’t find the words to express my thoughts. Thank you for reading my mind.

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