Here’s a cheat sheet for all the young-men-with-dark-secrets movies this fall: Beautiful Boy is the one with Timothée Chalamet as a real-life addict, not to be confused with Boy Erased starring Lucas Hedges in a true story about gay conversion therapy, neither of which are the same as Ben Is Back, also about addiction and also starring Hedges.
The first two movies, which I recently saw, are good illustrations of how challenging it is to adapt a personal memoir. Boy Erased is based on Garrard Conley’s account of being 19 in Arkansas, son of a fundamentalist Baptist preacher, in an ex-gay program called Love in Action. Beautiful Boy comes from two different volumes, a book called Tweak by recovering addict Nic Sheff and another (Beautiful Boy) from his father’s perspective. The stories are undoubtedly topical: opioids claim tens of thousands of lives annually, while only 14 states ban conversation therapy for minors (not even Massachusetts, to my surprise). But while both are moving and well-meaning, they can also be dramatically frustrating.
A queer director might have brought more individuality to this story. Joel Edgerton, clearly a capable director, is especially menacing as the leader of Love in Action, but his version of Garrard Conley’s story doesn’t delve into the teen’s inner conflict. It’s a movie made for the parents, concentrating mostly on Jared’s (as he’s called in the movie) relationship with his family. His own sexuality is expressed in hints: “I think about men,” he says coming out to his parents. His only sexual encounter is violent, without consent; his desires are otherwise kept under wraps, and he never really gets space to verbalize them.
Other than Nicole Kidman’s campy blonde wig, this movie takes itself seriously. Ultimately it’s a story of tenderness and redemption, as Jared’s mother (a forceful Kidman) and father (Russell Crowe, maybe too understated) come to terms with what they’ve done. It’s not a movie that lets itself horrify us too much. The therapy as we see it is fairly bland, deceptively so–until the ex-gays in charge opt for one scene of high drama: a mock funeral for a member of the group, who is thrown to the floor and beaten repeatedly with a Bible. This scene, and the sinister horror-movie soundtrack, suggest how this movie might have looked much more unsettling–and possibly more compelling. We know there are more abusive programs out there, and we know they haven’t been eradicated yet.
This movie’s harder to watch because it feels like it’s not going anywhere. That’s the point: relapse is a part of recovery, so they say, and for the time we share with Nic, we’re on a torturous roller coaster of relapses, with another around the bend. It’s not easy to witness that constant cycle; at least we know that the real-life Nic Sheff is clean today. He wrote his own memoirs after reading the book his father published; and even after his story was public, the real Nic relapsed again. There is no end to this addiction.
The filmmakers use David’s story as the driving force of the movie. Played by Steve Carell, Davis sees himself as a rescuer, trying to understand so he can help, so he can bring back the son he’s losing. There’s a sameness to the screen translation, a logical one, since we’re watching David swoop in each time to push and prod his son into recovery. With Carell front and center, Nic feels more like a supporting character, as enigmatic to us as he is to his family. Chalamet makes this work; he’s a restless actor, everything projected outward, and he knows how to go for the big, messy emotional beats honestly. There’s a chilling scene where he injects a needle into his arm and he’s smiling broadly, experiencing the joy of a high that rewards him unlike anything else in his life.
Director Felix Van Groeningen’s look at the realities of addiction feels true, though it’s spoiled by too many sentimental flashbacks to the younger Nic as a boy. Though frustrating at times, Beautiful Boy smartly doesn’t flinch from showing us what this disease really looks like when you’re in it. The filmmakers are too sensitive to make this too Hollywood; there’s no good guys and bad guys, no reducing this addiction to a simple explanation. The reality is, we deal with it as best we can.