A Teenager Adrift: Felix Van Groeningen's 'Beautiful Boy' is a true story of addiction's toll

Movies Features

Steve Carell profoundly flunked the stepdad test in 2013’s The Way, Way Back, but nowadays he’s mightily making amends, playing the emotionally taxed father of Amazon’s Beautiful Boy. Here, the erstwhile 40-Year-Old Virgin has the pained expression and salt-and-pepper hair of someone who’s lost a teenager to alcoholism and addiction.

Despite “The Office”and the Anchorman movies, Belgian filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen (himself now four-0) detected a serious actor trying to climb out of the clown’s suit, and Carell’s name gradually topped the list of the likeliest candidates.

“We took our time as we were developing the movie,” Van Groeningen recalls, “and we talked a lot about different possible actors but never attached anybody. At some point, Steve Carell’s name became part of our talks. It wasn’t always there, but once it entered the conversation, it just stayed there. I think Steve is a terrific dramatic actor. Of course, he’s best known as a comedic actor, but I’ve always found him to be just as strong in dramas. Even as a person, he’s really, really earnest and sincere, and in his personal life he’s a very loving father and family man. That, we needed.”

When pitched the part, Carell pounced—and not as a showy opportunity to play against type. “He just wants to do great things—keep it interesting and not always do the same thing. I’m sure he’s still going to do comedy, but I suspect it’s very rewarding for him to work on projects that mean a lot to him. That’s really why he took it on.”

To play the object of the father’s affection and frustration, Van Groeningen lucked out again by landing Timothée Chalamet from the Screen World class of 2017. He amorously pursued Saoirse Ronan and Armie Hammer in two Oscar-contending Best Pictures that year (Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name) and got a Best Actor nomination himself for the latter. Here, he only obsesses over booze and drugs.

“I think Timothée’s genius lies in his fearlessness,” Van Groeningen proffers. “That cannot be achieved in a good way if you’re not very talented, and he obviously is.

“He will go and take his role to places you don’t expect. That really makes it very surprising and exciting—and dangerous. But, on the other hand, he never loses the humanity of his character, either. He really has the great gift of grasping things that are very hard to grasp, of finding that certain vibe that lies between people.”

Van Groeningen came to feature films as a full-fledged hyphenate, directing and either writing or co-writing (this one was done with Luke Davis) all six and an establishing short. Acclaim kicked in with The Broken Circle Breakdown, a 2014 Best Foreign Language Film nominee full of family heartbreak and Flemish bluegrass.

“I always knew I wanted to do movies,” he readily admits—and then qualifies: “I actually started out to be an actor, but when I was doing theatre courses or movie auditions, I got so nervous I finally said, ‘OK, I’ll just direct.’ Of course, it was harder than that—a long journey from school [the KASK Film Academy in Ghent] to my first feature, but it all went sort of seamlessly. I worked hard, and I was also pretty lucky.”

He’s proud of the whole half-dozen. “I make films because I want to learn from them. They represent specific parts of my life. If I re-watch ’em, I’m thrown back into ’em.”

And what part of his life does Beautiful Boy bring out? “Like many people, I have seen addiction from afar and up close. I grew up in a bar—my father’s bar in Ghent—so I saw alcohol and drug abuse from pretty close by. Also, I had family members who are struggling with addiction, and I came to finally realize that, as a family, we didn’t have a way of dealing with it. Just that fact made me want to do this film.”

A teenager adrift in booze and drugs is almost a screen staple, but Van Groeningen’s account is a markedly balanced version, surprisingly fresh and humanely detailed.

The reason? The script is an amalgam of dueling bestsellers recounting the same experience from the frayed perspectives of father (David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy) and son (Nic Sheff’s Tweak). Dad’s title, quite naturally, comes from John Lennon’s song about his son, Julian, and, unlike most addiction flicks, the emphasis is less on the addict and more on the Al-Anon faction (family and friends of the addict).

“The neat thing about this film is that it allows me to do what I think has never been done before—combine the conflicting points of view of two different books. It was a challenge, but that’s also what made it unique—and why I wanted to do this.

“The accent is more on David’s story because it is the mythic journey of a father trying to save his son, but it’s equally important to get the other side, too. If we were to understand Nic, then we would understand even more what David was going through. I wanted to get inside Nic’s head as well—like, ‘How come it’s so hard to stay sober? How easy is it to relapse?’ I really wanted to live that with him.”

This way, sympathy is shared with both injured parties. “That was really important to me,” Van Groeningen confesses. “When I make a film, I do it because I love the characters being portrayed—especially in this case. I wanted to show a family going through this situation and not to judge addiction. Nic keeps relapsing and relapsing, but that’s how it is in real life, and it’s how this particular family went through this.”

He has a favorite scene in the film, and it reflects favorably on both actors—a diner scene in the middle of the movie where the two meet up after a bitter estrangement. Nic has been living on the streets for a while, is really strung out and actually wants more drugs. David wants to get him to understand how perilous the condition is.

“It’s just such an incredible scene. Both Steve and Timmy do a great job here, really inhabiting their characters. It’s an emotional tennis match and amazing to watch on an actors’ level—two performers feeling each other out and connecting so deeply while their characters are totally missing the point and totally missing each other.”

There is a record amount of father-son hugs in this picture that Mr. Guinness might want to check out. Carell hugs first, tightly, and says, “Everything,” then Chalamet returns the serve just as tightly and repeats “Everything.” This affection becomes few and far between as drink and drugs drive the two of them apart, but it makes a comeback at the end and doesn’t leave many dry eyes in the house.

The gesture is borrowed from one of the books, Van Groeningen allows. “It’s a small reference in the book, but we crafted it so that it has a big payoff in the movie.”