Reel Dad: Beautiful Boy - Touching yet disconnected

As parents, we try to do our best.
Throughout the childhoods we foster, we imagine what could hurt, support what can challenge, and comfort what may disappoint. But we’re not miracle workers, we can’t simply wish for our children’s lives to simplify. Sometimes, all we can do is hope.
The haunting Beautiful Boy captures the complexities a family can face when a teenaged child becomes addicted to drugs. This could happen in any home, to any parents. Looking through the windows into houses, we may see happy families filled with love, fun and caring. But little do we know what happens inside. And families can become comfortable explaining what can confuse, or overlooking what should alarm. We can believe we are the people we try to be.

But Beautiful Boy, based on the nonfiction memoirs by father and son David and Nic Sheff, reminds us that no family is immune from the tragedy of drug addiction. This young man, a gifted artist, a charming personality, seems to have everything on his side, the world at his doorway. Still he becomes trapped in a world he can’t understand by a temptation he can’t overcome. But he is, always, the beautiful boy his father sees. And refuses to ignore.
This could have been a milestone film if it dared to be as brave as the characters it presents. But director Felix Van Groeningen, working from a screenplay he wrote with Luke Davies, seems so uncertain if audiences can endure reality that he creates a world that looks and feels artificial. The setting for the home may be too perfect, the laughter between the family too comfortable, the conclusions of conversations too tidy. He resists the necessary urge to delve deeper into how the son pays for the habit he cannot shake, how he sustains any level of life during the darker moments. And the movie can’t make up its mind which story it wants to tell, the son trying to find himself, or the father trying to resolve his sense of protection, his fears of failure.
What adds to the confusion in the narrative is the odd decision to let time bounce around. All of a sudden we see a moment in the present, quickly followed by what must be a flashback, immediately moving to a sequence that appears to be the future, without giving us any indication of when what we see happens. Or will happen. Or did happen. And robbing the film of a linear narrative dilutes the impact of its story and places more burden on its cast to track their characters’ progression.
But the performance from Timothée Chalamet makes up for any structural or creative flaws. This masterful actor, an Oscar nominee last year for Call Me By Your Name, reaches into a different side of his soul to deliver a complex, compelling performance of a young man trapped by his demons and robbed of his aspirations. He is the reason to see the film. And, every moment he is off screen, the film loses its focus. Van Groeningen never makes the story of the father, played by Steve Carrell, as captivating as the moments he simply settles on Chalamet.
Yes, as parents, we try to do our best. And Beautiful Boy, despite its challenges as a film, reminds us why we keep trying.

Film Nutritional Value: Beautiful Boy

Content : High. This thoughtful look at the how a family copes with trauma offers Timothée Chalamet a plum role he plays with relish.
Entertainment : Medium. Even though Chalamet is a master of the moment and the nuance, the confusing approach to the narrative diminishes the film’s impact.
Message : High. As frightening as some of the situations can feel, Chalamet’s authenticity bristles with authenticity.
Relevance : High. Any opportunity to share such an important issue with older children is valuable.
Opportunity for Dialogue : High. The movie can prompt meaningful family discussions.
Beautiful Boy, running 2 hours, is Rated R for “drug content throughout, language, and brief sexual material.” Three out of five Popcorn Buckets. Following its theatrical run, the film is available on Amazon Prime. 

The Fault in Our Stars: Meaningful Tribute to Perseverance

As parents, we try to protect our children from anything or anyone that can hurt.

Beautiful Boy tells one story about this effort. And this film tells another.

While we can’t guarantee they will be happy and healthy, despite our efforts, we hope and pray they always face better days. Of the many fears we may experience as parents, the thought of a child facing a serious illness frightens most. How helpless would we feel if we couldn’t make it all better?

So it’s impossible to see The Fault in Our Stars without reflecting on our parental fears. While this moving adaptation of John Green’s novel may be about young people, Laura Dern’s thoughtful performance as a caring mother demonstrates the strength that any parent would hope to bring to such a situation. If the film reminds us that happy endings don’t always happen, even at the movies, it reinforces our belief that people with courage can navigate any experience.

Hazel is a courageous young woman. Since her childhood she has faced a series of healthcare challenges related to her complicated battle with stage 4 thyroid cancer. While she take a practical view of her prognosis, Hazel seems older than her years, perhaps because she has confronted so much in a short life. What seems to escape her daily routine is spontaneity; every step she takes follows a routine her condition demands. When she meets Gus, at a local support group for cancer victims, she is caught off guard. Yes, he is also a cancer survivor; yes, he can share the lessons that illness can teach. But he’s so determined to stop the disease from defining his life that he pushes Hazel into seeing possibilities. Gus refuses to let fear rule his days; instead he fills his life with experiences to be remembered.

With its focus on the joys of relationships, not just the tragedy of illness, Fault on film emerges as a character study of how people choose to live today when tomorrow is far from certain. Without letting the film become too maudlin — given the severity of its subject matter — director Josh Boone wisely chooses to focus on the moments these young people do control, from how they spend time together, to how they stand up to their parents, to how they challenge the irreverent behavior of a once-famous author. By making the teenagers into real people trying to cope with real issues, Boone elevates the film from a traditional tearjerker to a portrayal of hope that can touch even a cynical moviegoer.

At the core of Fault is the multi-shaded work of Shailene Woodley as the cancer victim hoping to share small moments. This lovely actress, so memorable in The Descendants, refuses to play Hazel as a one-dimensional victim. Instead she makes the character a young woman with many layers, a lady who balances the reality of her situation with the excitement that new relationships can bring. Never do we feel we are watching an actress; Woodley invests the role with enough humanity to make the predictable feel spontaneous. While she dominates the film, much can be said about Laura Dern’s realistic portrayal of parental concern. She makes us believe in the authenticity of a parent’s experience that, in turn, gives the film’s emotional journey a solid foundation.

Yes, Fault can inspire tears. Unlike the traditional tearjerker, though, the reaction is not in response to loss. In The Fault in Our Stars, the joys the characters experience frame the tragedies they confront. Their bravery teaches us that, when we face truth, we can find life in any situation.

The Fault in Our Stars is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language.” The film runs 125 minutes. It is available to stream online.