Review: 'Beautiful Boy' Makes Overt Appeals to Emotion

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This review was originally published for UW Film Club and has since been republished here with the author’s permission.

If the trailers for were any indication, Beautiful Boy positioned itself as an emotional look at addiction. With its flag firmly planted, the film promises a rollercoaster of emotions that hopes to make you shed a few tears in the process. With such lofty intentions, you would think the emotional moments of the film should be handled with great care to ensure that they have the weight and reverence to match the seriousness of the subject matter. You would think.

Instead, all the efforts made by Felix Van Groeningen to evoke emotion happen all too often. In a blitz of the ‘feels,’ Beautiful Boy likes to constantly remind you of how emotional it is without any grounds for it. Audiences are smothered with emotional beat after beat in a flurry of scenes that want you to feel sadness, sympathy, and affection in every scene, but by injecting emotion into nearly every scene, the film fails to create any distinction between any of them. The over abundance of emotion results in a scenario where no scene has relevance because everything is elevated to an equitable level. To put it bluntly, Beautiful Boy is a film with too many overt appeals to emotion.

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Beautiful Boy is based on the novels Beautiful Boy and Tweak by David and Nic Scheff telling the relationship between father and son as the later struggles with a meth addiction. As the problem emerges, David tries to help his son to no avail. The problem then spirals into a cycle of recovery and relapse as Nic keeps using while David does everything in his power to help his son who he loves endlessly. The result is a narrative that shows the unfleeting love between father and son and how the complex struggles of addiction challenge that love.

The problem with Beautiful Boy is how overt it is with its emotional scenes and how frequently they occur. The film opens with an emotional moment. Then again 8 minutes later. Then again 11 minutes later. And on and on it goes until by the end I couldn’t believe the emotional climax was a climax at all because of how similar it was to everything else. In the multitudes of emotional scenes it is hard to be moved in any way due to how heavy handed the film likes to be with its messaging. Remember how sad we made you feel 15 minutes ago? Well how about we do it again in a slightly different way? The cyclical cycle of addiction is what the film is using as its narrative through line, showing how relapse occurs again and again in heartbreaking ways, but the film has no nuance in how it discerns between one relapse and the next. 

This isn’t helped by the fact that the score and soundtrack rise up every time there is an emotional beat. The accompanying music swells to remind you just how emotional it wants to be, but never how emotional it actually is. There is often mismatches between the sound and the action taking place on screen, but it is often done to evoke an emotional response from the audience that really isn’t earned. When present, the paired audio is mismatched, jarring, and out of place. Much of the film plays with sound in the background, but it is frustratingly inserted when simply leaving it out would produce something much better. Instead of letting events play out and letting the action on screen speak for how emotional it is, soundtracks and scores come in to remind you that you need to be feeling something right now. 

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And the film is at its best when there is no score. The quiet, non-scored moments speak much louder than the parts that the film wants to be greater than they really are. By always pushing strong emotions, you never have any emotions cause they are indiscernible from one another. It is the smaller moments that have greater effect because they are so different from all the rest; they are not forcing you to feel, they are speaking for themselves.

Carrying these emotions are the performances of Timothee Chalamet and Steve Carell. If you  remove the notion that nearly every scene is overt, these performances are quite good. We are getting a story about a father who is persistent in his love for his son, but who is questioned every time his son relapses. Conversely, with Chalamet is portraying an addict who wants to get better, but can’t help himself; it is not his fault that he relapses, but something that is endemic and a challenge he struggles with.  The dynamic of addiction versus unrelenting familial love is the core to the film’s themes and it is held up well by the performances. It is just a shame that those performances are placed in a script that wants to exploit that narrative for as many emotional moments that it can get. 

While watching this film, it is easy to see that there is an amazing narrative at the heart of this movie. The problem, however, lies within the film’s execution. Too often does the film cripple itself with emotional plays on emotion, and too few does it realize how to reserve itself for moments that truly garner an emotional response. Unaided by its intentions and only softened by Chalemet and Carell, Beautiful Boyis too overt for its own good. When the film plays its cards over and over, it makes it hard to buy in again and again, and as such, I’m out.

Score: 2.5/5