Belgian director Felix van Groeningen is not a man for half measures. He makes big, sprawling, emotional films, and the latest example is “Beautiful Boy,” which had its world premiere at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival.
The film is adapted from the twin memoirs by veteran journalist David Sheff and his son Nic, both of whom documented the drug addiction that gripped Nic in his teenage years and nearly destroyed the family.
Van Groeningen may not be an obvious choice for a drama set mostly in California, but he has definitely demonstrated an aplomb with stories of family calamity — and “Beautiful Boy” is family calamity writ large, a harrowing and horrifying (and yes, overly long) exploration of the depths of addiction.
It’s completely different in subject matter, but not dissimilar in approach to Van Groeningen’s best known movie, the foreign-language Oscar nominee “Broken Circle Breakdown.” In that Film, the director had the ambition and perhaps the foolhardiness to make what was partly an infectious music movie about a Belgian bluegrass band, also partly a downbeat story about a couple breaking apart after the death of a child. You could say that he tried to do too much, but the fact that the film worked as well as it did is testament to the director’s ability to mix raw emotion with a sense of release.
He does it again with “Beautiful Boy,” which jumps around in time as it traces the path of Nic Sheff, who went from sharing a joint with his father to becoming a full-fledged crystal meth addict.
Timothée Chalamet was cast before his breakout 2017, which saw him appearing in two Best Picture nominees, “Lady Bird” and “Call Me by Your Name,” landing a Best Actor nomination and a raft of critics’ awards for the latter. The fact that he’s now a certified heartthrob should help this difficult story at the box office, though the fact that he’s also a terrific actor is a bigger plus for the film itself.
Nic willingly takes a journey into hell, insisting that it’s a choice rather than a disease until the only remaining alternatives are death or healing. Chalamet sketches the utter degradation, but also the subtle shades of a user whose every sentence may well be an attempt at manipulation.
Steve Carell plays David Sheff as a man whose default mode is calmness, but who runs into the limits of reason again and again. The days when a dramatic performance from Carell was a surprise are long behind us, and his journey in “Beautiful Boy” is a marvelously sensitive, largely quiet tour de force.
While the film veers from addiction to rehab again and again, upping the ante on misery with each new turn, the centerpieces are a couple of conversations between father and son, one in a diner when Nic is trying to con his dad out of money and one on the phone when David finally decides that he can’t try to help his son any longer.
Like “Broken Circle Breakdown,” music is central to “Beautiful Boy,” though in this case it’s not onscreen performances, but the canny use of songs that heighten the moment without seeming heavy-handed. It’s a catalog of depressives from Bowie to Buckley, with Nirvana and Neil Young thrown in there and Sigur Ros and Henryk Gorecki doing some of the heavy lifting.
It’s all too much sometimes, but it’s an undeniably wrenching journey.