Opening Night of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival featured the Amazon film “Beautiful Boy,” directed by Belgian director Felix van Groeningen and starring Timothee Chalomet, Steve Carell, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan and Andre Royo (“The Wire,” “Fringe,” “Empire”).
The film is based on two books written by David Sheff (“Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction”) and Nic Sheff: “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.” Both books were published in 2009. Their impact on director Felix van Groeningen in his first American film for Amazon, is what brought about the project.
Von Groeningen told me on Opening Night in Chicago, “It’s a real honor to be here. I’m very proud of the film and the fact that it is opening the Chicago International Film Festival.” When I asked him how excited he was, on a scale of 1 to 10, to have helmed this first American film, he replied, enthusiastically: “12!” Von Groeningen said, “I did another film (“The Broken Circle Breakdown,” 2012) that brought up a lot of controversial issues, and you just hope that this film will speak to people.”
Also present this night was Andre Royo, veteran character actor who plays Spencer, the sponsor of the drug-addicted Nic (Chalomet). The film recounts the heartbreaking and inspiring experience of survival, relapse and recovery in a family coping with addiction that stretches over many years. Dede Robinson, of Brad Pitt’s “Plan B” production company was scheduled to attend, but did not. She has won Oscars for producing “Twelve Years A Slave” and “Moonlight” and is the only female producer to have won 2 Academy Awards. (She has also been nominated pretty regularly each year since 2011).
The acting in this one is Top Notch, with Timothee Chalomet (“Call Me By Your Name”) in line for his second Oscar nomination as Best Actor in 2 years, and with the likelihood that co-star Steve Carell as his father will earn a Best Supporting Actor nod. Maura Tierney (“The Affair”) playing David Sheff’s second wife, Karen, is also strong, as is Amy Ryan as his divorced wife (and mother of Nic), Vicky. The acting in this one is superlative, and it is because of the actors’ commitment to finding the core conflict of their characters and conveying it realistically onscreen that the film has won such glowing praise, in Toronto and elsewhere.
There is no question that addressing the growing problem of drug addiction is an important and timely topic. A line onscreen at film’s end notes that drug overdoses are the leading cause of death among those under age 50. Chalomet, on Jimmy Fallon’s show on October 10th, said, “Addiction is not a recognizable face. That’s what this movie hopes to address. That’s how we get through it, by talking about it.”
Whenever you enter a film that features an addict shooting up, you think, “This will not end well.” That is true of this film. It does throw us a bit of a curve ball in that regard.
This is the director’s first English language film. I wondered if the individuals hired for areas like music were people he had worked with on previous films. I’m thinking particularly of the musical choices made by a four-person team, supervised by Gabe Helfer (Bob Bowen, executive in charge of music; Christoffer Franzen, composer; Henry van Roden). I found some of the musical choices odd, incongruous, too obvious or too cacophonous; I spoke with others who did, as well. Could it be cultural differences, or is there another valid explanation?
What do I mean? Perry Como singing “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” paired with a Nirvana song, “Territorial Pissing?” “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young. Annoying loud jangly music at times that detracted from what was going on onscreen, rather than augmenting it or adding to it. Jazz for the snorting scene, for example. “Darling, I Need Your Love” as Nic walks into a diner (seemed too obvious). Why do I pay attention to this stuff? My daughter’s college major at Belmont was Music Business. She worked helping put music in films like “Up in the Air” in internships and, later, worked for Taylor Swift. She told me to pay better attention, so I do.
The Young Nics
There are entirely too many “young Nics” and some of them don’t look much like “teenaged Nic.” Their pictures are all over the walls. Why not use childhood pictures of the REAL Timothee Chalomet? Why use the one child (seen in the trailer) whose hair looks nothing like the wild curls of the teenaged actor? (His hair is straight, his face is the wrong shape, and I doubt if anybody is buying that this child grows up to be Timothy Chalomet.) One young actor who plays Nic as a 12-year-old is Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Eddie Kaspbrak in “It” and co-stars in television’s “Me, Myself and I.”
A poem by Charlies Bukowski is featured. It is read in part by the lead during a rehab session and in its entirety at the end of the film. Once would have been enough. It seemed more like something that an Indie film director would do…an “auteur” move. We’d already gotten the general idea from the short portion that young Nic reads in group.
The two filmgoers next to me—middle-aged women—both said, “This needed to be about a half hour shorter.” The film runs 111 minutes, but she was right that relapse after relapse after relapse begins to wear on you. I would definitely go for the stellar performances, bound to be recognized on February 24 (Oscar time) and hope that the message about how awful Meth, in particular, is for the human brain gets out there.