The Screening Room | Two stars shine in flawed 'Beautiful Boy'

The Screening Room | Two stars shine in flawed 'Beautiful Boy'

At its best, Felix van Groeningen's "Beautiful Boy" captures the sense of frustration, rage and helplessness parents feel when they see one of their children caught in the cycle of addiction.

Good intentions mean nothing, questions go unanswered, worthwhile rehab centers are hard to find, and the realization that relapses are a part of recovery is crushing. Questioning your skills as a parent becomes a constant zero-sum game, and having to distance yourself from your child so they can hit bottom and begin their own journey towards recovery proves to be the hardest thing you'll ever do.

Based on the memoir of the same name by journalist David Sheff and "Tweak" by his son Nic, "Boy" is at times a harrowing and ultimately heartbreaking journey through the ups and downs of the young man's addiction to meth and his struggle to break it.

Employing an approach that uses flashbacks to happier times — when Nic was a joyful little boy, a young man of great intelligence, kindness and promise — van Groeningen successfully juxtaposes those moments with the tragedy of the present day to effectively drive home why David goes to the lengths he does to save his son.

As the elder Sheff, Steve Carrell does some of the best work of his career, tapping into his constant sense of anguish while struggling to maintain a degree of optimism, all the while knowing the odds are against Nic to succeed.

Carrell and Timothée Chalamet as his on-screen son must have a meaningful off-screen relationship, as the intimacy they display isn't the result of constant rehearsals. There's an authenticity to the scenes they share, and as a result, a subtle power emerges, particularly during moments of confrontation that ultimately prove devastating.

It's regrettable that Nic's mother, Vicki, and his stepmother, Karen, come off as cursory characters allowed only to exist on the fringe of the story. Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney are wasted in these respective roles, each given only a moment or two of note.

Another peripheral character who deserves more of a voice is Nic's girlfriend, Lauren (Kaitlyn Dever), a young woman he knowingly pulls in to join his cycle of addiction. One can't help but wonder how much fuller the story would be if their perspectives had been more fully integrated into the film.

There's no question the movie does an exceptional job in rendering the fallout of Nic's abuse and how this becomes a constant that hangs over the lives of all involved.

However, the film stumbles in its portrayal of the drug use itself and its immediate repercussions. While scenes of Nic shooting up are never romanticized in any way, they aren't nearly as distressing as they should be. It's as if van Groeningen is ignoring the stone that was thrown in a pond and only wants to focus on the ripples that it caused. In not showing this process in a more realistic manner, he does a disservice to Nic and fellow addicts.

Without a doubt, the message of "Boy" is a vital one, and the statistics it shares before the final credits roll are staggering in terms of how widespread the drug epidemic is and how little help is being afforded to combat it.

Yet, in the end, the film's message isn't as strong as it could be, leaving the viewer outraged but not as emotionally moved as they could have been.

'Beautiful Boy' (★★★ out of four)

Cast: Steve Carrell, Timothy Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Christian Convery, Oakley Bull, Kaitlyn Dever and Timothy Hutton.

Directed by Felix van Groeningen; produced by Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Brad Pitt; screenplay by Luke Davies and van Groeningen (based on the memoirs "Beautiful Boy" by David Sheff and "Tweak" by Nic Sheff)

An Amazon Studios release. 120 minutes. Rated R (drug content, language & brief sexual material) At Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

Taut, sharp "Guilty" a winning thriller (★★★1/2 out of four). You can tell from the start that Asger Holm is, to put it nicely, difficult. His demeanor is abrasive and he's short with his colleagues, naturally exuding that he feels as though he simply doesn't have time for them and anything they might say is of no importance. He's a loner in the truest sense of the word, a way of life that he's starting to realize is a dead end.

As a suspended police officer assigned to the dispatch division while an incident he was involved in is investigated, he runs up against a line of procedure he finds stifling, something he's been chafing at since he's been here, something he'll have to end up bucking before his time is through.

Gustav Moller's "The Guilty" is a tautly told modern chamber play that takes place in one location and is dependent on lead actor Jakob Cedergren in order to succeed. Thankfully, he's up to the task, appearing in every scene as Holm, his face telling us the entire story as his performance is composed of nothing but reactions to voices on the other end of a series of frantic phone calls. Though the film gets off to a slow start, Moller soon finds his footing and steadily increases the pace and tension of the story over its brisk 85-minute running time, delivering a gripping thriller with more than one narrative twist that rings true.

The evening in question starts off as just another with a series of typical calls. Holm fields a complaint from a john who's been ripped off by a prostitute he's picked up and a call for help from a young woman injured on a bike and has to deal with an incoherent gentleman who's obviously had far too much to drink.

However, things take a dark turn when a call comes in from a woman named Iben (Jessica Dinnage). She's been kidnapped by her abusive husband (Johan Olsen) and is being taken to an undisclosed location. Pretending to be calling her daughter Mathilde (Katinka Evers-Jahnsen), she is instead telling Holm of her plight, and he's desperately trying to get key pieces of information that will allow him to locate her and send help.

The calls and the situation become more perilous as the film continues, with Moller cutting them shorter and shorter and the cast rendering their roles in the wrenching manner — all of them, other than Cedergren, simply voices on the phone. It's a high-wire act throughout and is reminiscent of the Tom Hardy 2013 feature "Locke," which was built around a similar premise and proves just as effective.

What's interesting about these two features is that it makes the viewer an active participant, requiring us to imagine the situations on the other end of the line, taut, unseen moments that we bring to life in our own mind's eye. Combining traditional cinematic elements with that of old-time radio dramas, "The Guilty" ends up being an immersive experience for the audience, who are required to bring the drama to life.

The script by Emil Nygaard Albertson and Moller is razor-sharp and doubles back on itself in a surprising but logical way that's very clever. You don't see the twist coming nor the revelation that Holm shares once his macho facade is stripped away and his vulnerability comes to the fore.

In playing against our expectations and drawing the audience in, "The Guilty" proves itself to be the sort of inventive cinema that keeps the viewer engaged as it plays out and shaken as the final credits roll, a film that reminds us that when the most basic elements of the form are rendered with intelligence and skill, that's all that's needed to make effective entertainment.

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