As a first-time film festival programmer (for the rebranded Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival), I found myself in the position countless others have experienced before – as a curator on the hunt for a whale of a film that will not only attract hungry filmgoers, but also have the kind of awards season prowess to bless the festival with extra credibility beyond the regional audience. Our midwestern festival found itself in a rather precarious scheduling situation following a veritable gauntlet of major fests (Telluride, Venice, and Toronto) with the ability to scoop up nearly every noteworthy film expected to be in the Oscar discussion this season. Our only hope was to seize the opportunity to unveil one of the contenders first for regional audiences.
Based on our festival’s thematic focus on broadening the topic of disability within the larger discussion of diversity, we made a concerted push to acquire Felix Van Groenigen’s Beautiful Boy, a tricky adaptation of of two separate memoirs (David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy and son Nic Sheff’s Tweak). It is tale of seemingly endless struggle, as a father attempts to salvage the promising life of a son, at the expense of everyone else caught up with the family. With Steve Carell eschewing his typical sad clown routine in an effort to burrow even further into the bedrock of sorrow and Timothée Chalamet employing his fragile beauty to full effect, Beautiful Boy felt like a multi-hanky triumph capable of defining our new brand.
Negotiations dissolved and we pursued other titles, but Beautiful Boy loomed on the horizon for me, as a Toronto International Film Festival selection that landed on my screening schedule. I wanted to see for myself, admittedly with a different festival crowd, how it played in a packed theater and comparatively dream about how it might have worked in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
What I found, in the early going, was an earnest and heartfelt approach that appeared to lean a bit more on the perspective of Carell’s David, the father who saw no sacrifice as being too great protect his favored son. The film stands as a love letter to parents, especially fathers, who in the parenting hierarchy take a backseat to mothers in most cultural arguments. David and Nic come across as the prototypical father and son, in David’s imaginings, because David makes it clear that he loves Nic more than everything. When David and Nic’s mother (Amy Ryan) separate and divorce, David doubles down on his commitment to Nic, even after he remarries and starts a new family with Karen (Maura Tierney), a patient artist.
The film captures David’s frustration in minute detail. Every instance of worry and handwringing, the yawning isolation that emerges between David and Karen, the hurtled accusations between David and his ex that bluntly cut both ways, it is all on display, but what I found myself longing for was a chance to escape from this side of things.
I needed more of Nic’s journey. We get glimpses, interludes of Nic in the familiar throes of his addiction, greedily meeting David in diners or coming home to cop enough cash to score a fix, maybe a hint of Nic in a moment of rehabilitation that we know won’t last. Chalamet pleads in these scenes with an earnestness that never fools us, but we recognize the allure, the promise, and we, for a fleeting instance, lean in. We let him lay his head on our shoulders, like Carell’s David.
Yet, something fundamental, actually primal is missing in these renderings of Nic’s perspective. At one point, Nic attempts to explain the powerful attraction of addiction, the pull of the highs, but that’s not what makes good storytelling. Groenigen needs to show us Nic’s version of the tragedy. Remember the crack den in Jungle Fever or the degradation of Requiem for a Dream? What are you willing to do to gain that brief hit of ecstasy? Say what you will about downward spirals on film, but I can’t forget the feeling of being handcuffed to Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.
I would also argue that David has been influenced by these harrowing images too, and of course, even more. What matters to him, in going further down the dark rabbit hole beyond these frames from film, is that he fears his son occupies the center and the looming pit will swallow his beautiful boy whole.
Beautiful Boy refuses to let audience catch a glimpse of the hellish nightmare surrounding Nic, which is a shame because if anyone could convince us how and why a person would wander into this inferno and have a chance to emerge from the other side, it just might be Chalamet, a young performer who has and expertly employs his angelic face as the great instrument that it is. Groenigen should have tweaked the narrative focus, tipping the scales towards Nic more so that Chalamet could have shown us the transcendent power of beauty.