It was hinted at in “Lady Bird” and other small roles and became more visible when “Call Me By Your Name” made him the youngest actor nominated for a lead actor Oscar since 1939. Now “Beautiful Boy” makes it official: Timothée Chalamet might be the male actor of his generation.
Still only 22, Chalamet gives an extraordinary performance in this story of a young man’s descent into methamphetamine addiction and the years-long attempt of his journalist father, played by Steve Carell, to pull him out.
Not everything else in this film, based on memoirs by the real-life father and son, David and Nic Sheff, and straightforwardly directed by Belgium’s Felix Van Groeningen, measures up to this performance, but it matters not. Chalamet is so good it’s worth seeing “Beautiful Boy” for his work alone.
The actor’s performance is especially noteworthy because it comes playing a character whose traits are some of the most familiar in contemporary cinema: If you’ve lost track of the number of drug addicts and/or sullen, disaffected teens you’ve seen on screen, please raise your hand.
With moments reminiscent of James Dean, the ne plus ultra of these roles, Chalamet both echoes the best of what’s come before and makes the part his own, allowing us to feel we’ve never seen a character like this. If you want to witness what honesty, authenticity and a remarkable gift can accomplish, this is the place to go.
Having the good fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of playing opposite Chalamet is Carell, a capable dramatic actor whose performance here is inevitably not in the same league as his costar’s.
For though there are elements of “Beautiful Boy” that strike notes different from the usual, there is a sameness to all addiction stories — the push and pull of hope and despair — that can feel overly familiar and dramatically unsatisfying in Van Groeningen and Luke Davies’ screenplay, even if they are based on fact.
Also problematic is the onscreen depiction of David’s character. Though the extent of his devotion to his son is undeniable, as played by Carell, David also comes across as self-involved and a bit pompous, full of complacent parental advice on the order of “your feeling of alienation will pass.”
Though both David’s current wife, Karen (Maura Tierney), and his first wife and Nic’s mother, Vicki (Amy Ryan), are characters here, neither is given quite enough to do, which may well be a factor of David’s obsessive determination to handle everything about his son himself.
But just when you start to lose patience with “Beautiful Boy,” Chalamet returns to the screen and holds you absolutely. The actor deftly conveys the teenage ability to go from contrite to belligerent in a heartbeat, he makes the familiar horrors of addiction and withdrawl feel fresh, and when he tells his father, “You don’t know who I am — this is me, Dad, this is who I am now,” he nails the moment.
“Beautiful Boy” begins with David quizzing a specialist (a welcome Timothy Hutton) about what crystal meth is doing to his son.
The film then flashes back to Nic in the early stages of addiction and moves forward to the multiple ups and downs of his battle with drugs.
We lose track of the numbing number of times Nic seems to have beaten the demon only to relapse — the film’s press notes list visits to seven treatment centers and 13 relapses over a roughly eight-year period — but it is a harrowing journey.
Though “Beautiful Boy” emphasizes the father-son dynamic, some of the film’s most affecting moments involve the collateral damage to other family members. The howling tears of Nic’s miserable half siblings when he causes chaos by stealing their tiny cash savings to buy drugs is particularly heartbreaking.
While director Van Groeningen’s best-known Belgian film, the Oscar-nominated “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” tended toward the emotionally overwrought, he helps his cause by taking a more restrained tack here.
Whenever it can, “Beautiful Boy” pulls back from hysteria. And the best thing about this film, aside from Chalamet’s performance, is that it is not a cautionary tale.
There is no lesson to be learned from the Sheffs’ experience, no hard-and-fast reason why the son became addicted, had such a hard time quitting or did not die as so many others did. It just is, a riddle without a solution, and we have to accept that, as the Sheffs ultimately do, whether we want to or not.
Rating: R, for drug content throughout, language and brief sexual material
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles