Addiction drama Beautiful Boy is admirably frustrating, repetitive and inconclusive

Plus: Hale County This Morning, This Evening.

 

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Any parents paranoid that their teenager’s first joint might buy them a one-way ticket on the Trainspotting Express are advised not to take even the smallest toke on Beautiful Boy, and certainly not to inhale. The film is adapted from two memoirs offering parent-and-child perspectives on addiction and recovery: one, from which the film takes its title, by the journalist David Sheff; the other, Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, by his son, Nic. David (Steve Carell) is at first baffled and then resentful to find that his flawless relationship with Nic (Timothée Chalamet) is nothing of the sort. Where once they surfed and sang and larked around, they are now strangers, with Nic uncommunicative, crabby and prone to emptying his younger siblings’ piggy-banks or disappearing for days without warning. “This isn’t us!” David fumes, mourning not only the boy he used to know but the perfection of their middle-class life.

Nic has progressed with unseemly haste from alcohol and weed to crystal meth. And while the film omits some of the more terrifying moments from his life (episodes in which he believes himself to be a spider or sells his body for drugs have not made it to the screen), the maddening, cyclical nature of addiction is preserved. The director and co-writer Felix Van Groeningen refuses us the comforts of chronology. The action swings back and forth in time so that we’re never quite sure whether we’re seeing Nic’s early drug use or another of his relapses. We lose track of which promise he is making to stay clean – the fifth one or the 50th?

The movie’s insurance-ad slickness, and the distinction it draws between nice music (the John Lennon title song) and the druggy sort (those nasty Nirvana boys), seems like a sop to squeamish viewers. It certainly feels perverse to cover Chalamet’s arm with purple bruises and puncture-marks and then bathe him in celestial light as he shoots up to Górecki, or gazes gormlessly at the sky in woolly hat and torn T-shirt while the camera circles him to the surge of Sigur Rós.

But despite these flaws, Beautiful Boy has a remorseless emotional integrity. Carell is measured and often bravely dislikeable as the father coming to terms with his own failings, while Chalamet shows the life in Nic being extinguished one cell at a time like lights switched off in a condemned building. It is frustrating, repetitive and inconclusive, and all the more admirable for it.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a documentary about modern African-American lives in the “black belt” of Alabama, that land between Texas and Virginia where the majority of slave plantations were located. RaMell Ross moved to the area to coach basketball and teach photography, and out of his new life came this remarkable attempt to reframe black experience, to strip from it the tensions and preconceptions with which many images in the media are freighted, and to isolate the playful, the intimate, the contemplative.

His film is promiscuous in its enthusiasms: sources of lyricism or joy include a child’s bath-time, cows idling in a frosty field, a man having his nose pierced, a stream of basketball players shooting hoops just out of sight, a toddler hurtling up and down a hallway and a young man breaking into an elastic-limbed dance in front of his hooting, heckling chums.

Not that the film is frictionless. The brutal history of Hale County is always implicit in the landscape; tragedy also intrudes on one family, the camera deftly reducing their trauma to a brief shot of butterflies flitting across a cemetery lawn. There are images here worthy of Terrence Malick, and some of the inter-titles – “Where does time reside?”, “What is the orbit of our dreaming?” – sound like Malick’s dialogue, too. Hale County This Morning, This Evening has an impressive pedigree (visionary director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is credited as “creative adviser”) but that wouldn’t count for much if it didn’t achieve its aim to find a new language for the overlooked parts of neglected lives. But it does – lovingly. 

Beautiful Boy (15) 
dir: Felix Van Groeningen

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (no certificate) 
dir: RaMell Ross

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 18 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain