I would say at the outset that David & Nic Sheff, subjects of the biopic Beautiful Boy, are a real-life father and son (the movie is based on their respective memoirs, titled after David's), and the suffering depicted in the movie is real-life suffering, and far be it from me to minimise any of it. It is a terrible thing to go through what the Sheff family went through - for several years, Nic battled with drug addiction, getting into worse and worse stuff in between the moments when he was able to stay clean - far more than any movie review has anything to say about anything else.

I lead with this because Beautiful Boy is a giant pile of shit and when I say horrible things about the movie's David and Nic, played respectively by an absolutely out-of-control hammy Steve Carell and a merely inadequate Timothée Chalamet, I might otherwise feel guilty, like I'm trivialising something terrible. Ordinarily, this is the point where the joke "but not more than the movie has already trivialised it" would go, but Beautiful Boy at least cannot be accused of triviality. It is a gravely serious movie, serious in every fiber of its being, every cut, every carefully darkened frame, every moment that Carell looks anguished or Maura Tierney (who is mostly wasted as David's current wife Karen, though she still manages to give the film's most credible, psychologically insightful performance) looks tense or Amy Ryan (who is completely fucking wasted as David's ex, Nic's mom) looks frazzled and mad. It is, to be perfectly clear about it, a damn slog of miserabilism, two hours of watching characters being frustrated by frustrating events in their lives. Which, I concede, is certainly honest: the film's story orbits around David's increasing rage and self-loathing and fear at having the same damn thing happen no matter how many different ways he tries to stave it off. A sense of "we're never moving forward" isn't merely baked into the plot; it is the plot.

Anyway, if pacing was the only thing I didn't like about Beautiful Boy, this would be a very different review. Indeed, the film's anti-momentum is, by virtue of being explicable thematically, is probably among the film's strengths. Mostly, though, it's a fair disaster across the board. It's somehow the worst kind of grueling messagey Oscarbait, the kind that fancies itself to be very artistic: directed by Felix van Groeningen with far too much specific, motivated style that we could possibly do such a terrible thing like dismiss it as "hackwork", but fuck me if that style does anything particularly satisfactory (it's a horrible misfire after his solid earlier exercise in punishing miserabilism, 2012's The Broken Circle Breakdown, the only one of his films to get a significant release in the United States. Beautiful Boy is his first American production). The most notable thing about van Groeningen and Luke Davie's screenplay is the way it completely erases borders between present and past: the film largely takes the perspective of David as he reflects on raising Nic, and wondering what he did wrong, or what he needs to change, or where he was a great dad and Nic's just being an asshole, and the intrusion of moments that are clearly not "now" but otherwise have no clear tag as to what "then" they particularly belong to is what the film has in place of narrative momentum. If it had worked, this could have been pretty terrific stuff, transforming the entire film from the structure on up into a massive exercise in the subjectivity of a desperate parent who isn't sure how to subdivide his responsibility, guilt, and moral judgment around his son's actions.

It doesn't work, in part because Beautiful Boy doesn't want to commit to subjectivity: in a stunning unforced error, the film frequently shifts over to tell Nic's story from his own perspective, and it only one time does the same "unmarked flashback" thing. Eventually, it gives up including them in David's material as well. This fizzling-out of the film's primary structural strategy is just weird: it makes the second half of the film seem relatively pointless and formless, but it also retroactively makes the first half seem like a lot of hard work in service of nothing whatsoever. It is frustrating as hell, even more so because the flashbacks themselves are such flimsy, trite things. The film's title* suggests rather exactly the cloying tone of the movie's depiction of father and sons, which is suffused with the tacky sweetness of a television advertisement for a home improvement store, and the flashbacks are the worst offenders.

The bigger part of the film's problem is that, bluntly, it's poorly made. And in part, I mean this at a fundamental craftsmanship level: there is some astonishingly shitty sound mixing, mostly frontloaded (the film's first scene is a kind of perfect storm of fuzzy sound, making it sound like Carell has a pronounced lisp, bad cinematography, and terrible dialogue writing; everything improves from this point, though not by very much). And I do not have very much admiration for the lighting, either.

Mostly, though, it's poorly ma in the more general sense: it is flat-footed in its characterisations, which are one note & made worse by the performances; scenes just sit there, flat and cold and lifeless, waiting fruitlessly to be infused with any emotion other than pure dour shittiness, something that's not to be helped by Chalamet, who leans into dour shittiness, nor Carell, who just bleats a lot. The worst thing, maybe, is the film's terribly erratic choice of songs for the soundtrack, which just grabs a whole bunch of shit that comes fairly close to the needed emotional range, but builds no sense of taste or character; it's such an aimless grab-bag that it feels more like hitting "shuffle" than curating a personality, for the onscreen people or for the film itself. Given how badly Beautiful Boy needs to have absolutely any kind of structure whatsoever imposed upon itself, the fact that the music serves to muddy things up even more is just really fucking annoying.

Anyway, I get it, the film has its heart in the right place, and all. This is very obviously a movie designed for one overriding reason: to get viewers to walk away asking themselves questions. "What would I do?"; "Am I fucking up my kids?"; "Do I care more about one kid than the other?"; "When do you have to let them go and make their own mistakes?" It is transparently eager to raise those questions, and more power to it. Me, I care more about the emotional experience of watching a movie than having book club-style discussions afterwards, and the emotional experience of Beautiful Boy is like being served a gym sock full of cold oatmeal. And, like, very sad cold oatmeal, on top of it.

*Which is, among things, an Easter egg for music journalism fans: John Lennon's song "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)", which shows up on the soundtrack, appeared on Double Fantasy, his 1980 album with Yoko Ono. The very last interview of Lennon's life was conducted in September 1980, promoting that album, and it was for a Playboy article written by the very same David Sheff.