by Luke Gorham Film Horizon Line

Beautiful Boy | Felix Van Groeningen & Ben is Back | Peter Hedges

September 18, 2018

Based on a pair of memoirs, authored by father and son David and Nic Sheff — which detail the latter’s meth addiction and general self-destructive behavior from differing perspectives — Beautiful Boy is largely presented from only one of its principle characters’ standpoints. Dedicated, docile father David (Steve Carrell) tries to not only help his son, but also understand the interiority of a child no longer familiar to him. This approach proves aptly moving, thanks in part to some relatively low-key emoting, which allows gentle scenes of David’s addiction research and its accompanying anxiety to inform our understanding of his ordeal. It’s frustrating, then, that Nic (Timothée Chalamet) proves to be a more rote incarnation of substance abuse, all mood swings and escalating self-deception; the actor’s work helps, but does not fully overcome an underwritten role. Director Felix Van Groeningen clearly sees Nic as secondary to a narrative of the gyroscopic effects of addiction on a family. Still, his episodic approach is effective: montages of Nic’s recidivist cycles are punctuated with melancholic pop, jazzy interludes, and lilting operatics that reflect the emotional and psychological states of the character. This penchant for explicit articulation can sometimes seem ill-conceived and too didactic (a symbolic car chase, for instance), and the film’s narrative beats scan as fairly standard for an addiction drama, but Beautiful Boy thankfully proves reluctant to rely on the inherent dramatics of its subject matter, and intuitively employs its few aesthetic flourishes.  

Peter Hedges’s Ben Is Back, a kind of thematic sibling to Beautiful Boy, follows a teenage opiate addict (Lucas Hedges) returning home for Christmas from his sober living house. Rather than just rotely depicting the superficial identifiers of an addict’s psychology, Hedges’s film creates a fleshed-out character. Unfortunately, it disavows trust in both its subject matter and its characters, and, at around the halfway point, morphs into a rabbit-hole thriller that finds Ben’s devoted mother (Julia Roberts) following her son down the dark alleys and into dank trailer parks. It’s a jarring turn, one that not only undermines the authenticity that Ben Is Back led with, but also mines its addiction narrative for suspense in an abysmally exploitative way.

Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2018 | Dispatch 4.