Beautiful Boy Review

Certainly a work that will be discussed come awards season is Beautiful Boy, the latest from Belgian-born director Felix Van Groeningen, whose 2014 movie The Broken Circle Breakdown was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Beautiful Boy was adapted (by the filmmaker and co-writer Luke Davies) from the best-selling memoir of the same name by acclaimed writer David Sheff, as well as the companion book “Tweak,” by his son Nic Sheff, whose journey through drug addiction, recovery, relapse and survival serve as the basis for both works, each told from a unique perspective over many years.

Steve Carell delivers a strong central performance as David, with Timothée Chalamet (cast for this role before any of his memorable 2017 works were released) taking on the role of drug-addled Nic. The film also stars Maura Tierney as David’s current wife, Amy Ryan as his ex-wife (and Nic’s mother), and Kaitlyn Dever as Nic’s drug-buddy girlfriend Lauren, with whom he commits the ultimate act of betrayal against his family.

/Film spoke to Van Groeningen at the Chicago International Film Festival, where Beautiful Boy was the Opening Night screening. We covered such topics as how the memoirs ignited personal memories from his own life; casting Carell and Chalamet; and his warning/message of hope in the film’s final moments. The film is currently in limited release, opening wider over the next few weeks.

I’m curious about the process of taking two stories and bringing them together into a single film. I realize the two memoirs aren’t telling the same stories, but they are covering a lot of the same ground from very different perspectives. What were the challenges that you and your co-writer had in bringing these two perspectives together?

Felix: We do shift with them depending on the who the focus of the scene is, but it was challenging mostly because of the volume of material. One book is already way too much to adapt into a movie because there are always a bunch of scenes that you really love that you cannot use. So with two books, the problem is doubled. But it was also what made turning these stories into a film unique. I realized that trying to get David’s story of this father trying to save his son was something that, in this form, we hadn’t seen. On top of that, if you could include the point of view of the person who is going through this and tell it from the inside and try to get inside his head and fell how hard it is not to relapse, or when you relapse, how this cycle of shame pulls you in deeper, or if you’ve been sober for this long, how temptation is always lurking around the corner—how hard it is to stay sober and fight day by day to get through it.

That’s the villain of the film: temptation.

Felix: Yeah. So combining them and having them switch between the points of view so when you’re with David, you could be with David, so you would miss Nic and not know, like David, where he was, and you would have the same anxiety as he had. Then we switch to be with Nic in other moments, so you could experience the relapse with him and with that information arrive with the family. From the beginning, I knew it was going to be difficult, but I saw that it was going to be unique, because it would give you an incredible insight into what the issue of addiction is for a whole family.

One of the things you capture that I rarely seen in any film about addiction is the idea that sometimes relapsing happens for no obvious reason. Many films show it happening as a result of bad news or a high-pressure situation, but here, it just happens. Was it important for you to show that?

Felix: It just hits, absolutely. There are always little reasons that trigger it, so it’s not completely random. We had to embrace that unpredictability and the repetitiveness because that’s authentic, that’s what they went through, that’s the irrationality of it that drives people insane. But it happens, and you want to get it right. When I read the books, it really was an eye-opener for me, in the sense that I had seen addiction near to be, and from afar too, but really nearby in my family. I’ve seen part of my family impacted by it, and I noticed that many in the family didn’t know how to deal with it. In the beginning, the Sheffs think they have the tools but they don’t, but somehow they do get through it, and sharing their story was really important to create understanding about it.

Were you worried that the material was too heartbreaking and soul-crushing for audiences to handle? You balance a bit of the darkness by showing the family in happier times in flashbacks. You get a real sense of how close the David and Nic truly were.

Felix: I fell for the beauty of this family and the fact that they do believe in unconditional love Broken Circle Breakdown juggled that same thing—celebrating life by going through an ordeal, but coming out the other side as a stronger person. It’s a cathartic experience.

As much as this family does believe in unconditional love, there is that one moment where David has to say “No. I’m done with this version of you.” He’s not saying he doesn’t love Nic, but he is saying that he can’t do anything for him anymore. Nic has to want to get better and take the necessary steps. I know a lot of parents watching this might think they would never do that, but of course they would.

Felix: David in real life came to that point. In the script, we had to meticulously craft their arcs to come together at that point. What David reached at some point was what he had to be okay with. He realized that his son would die with or without him, or he could not choose for his son to live or die. That’s true for all parents. It’s a tough way in which he had to get through that, but it’s true. If you get there as a parents, while still being there, while doing everything you can, it’s a healthier way to be. He has another family to take care of, and it’s hurting them to see him go through this, so setting that boundary to protect those people was important.

Steve Carell is best known as a comedic actor, but he’s certainly done his share of dramatic work, and has a couple more big films [Vice and Welcome to Marwen] later this year. How did you first think of him to play this part?

Felix: Because of a couple of other films that made me aware of his incredible talent, like The Big Short and Foxcatcher. He has this incredibly ability to make any character he plays relatable. He’s also, in real life, an incredibly sincere and earnest person. I really fell for him. It took a long time to find the right person; we never attached it to anybody. I was going over names fro a long time, and as soon as his name came up, I was like “That would be amazing.” I was re-reading my script, sitting on a train in Belgium, thinking, “What would this be is Steve played this?” and I just started crying. I knew this was it. And his performance is incredible; he crafted it masterfully, I believe. He’s a very precise actor, which is funny because he’s also a master of improv, and how he juggles the two together is really impressive.

There is a school of filmmaking that allows improv to get to the dramatic heart of certain moments—films by everyone from Mike Leigh to the Duplass brothers. Did Carell do things that weren’t scripted to dig a little deeper into the character?

Felix: He went back and forth, never totally improv and always working really hard to stay close to the script and make it work. Since I’m the writer/director, I would also rewrite is necessary. But sometimes, yeah, or I would suggest or he would ask “We’re sort of stuck; let’s do one and go with the flow and see what happens.” I don’t like too much improve because you can lose yourself—I like to work more focused and get somewhere I think I need to get to—but sometimes you need to liven it up. Timothée too, he’s super committed and incredible talented and fearless, but also he wanted to get it right and was sometimes worried we didn’t have it, so I had to comfort him and tell him it was good. Then I would say “We got it but maybe we can try something, do whatever you want,” and when he was free from the anxiety, it would be mind-blowing.

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