Beautiful Boy, the true story of a father ground down by his son's chronic drug addiction, is a chronicle of emotional exhaustion that offers more exhaustion than emotion.
Steve Carell is the father, David Sheff, who gradually is forced to surrender belief that he's going to be decisive in affecting the addiction that has taken hold of his son Nic (Timothée Chalamet). He ends up with other resigned parents in a support group, where downcast adults gather under banners that spell out the Three C's of the situation – they didn't cause the addiction, they can't control it, and they can't cure it.
In between is a bumpy narrative that strives to be honest about the realities of addiction, and, to that end, shows us relapse after relapse after relapse, and the incremental damage this does to the considerable willpower of his determined father. (The movie is drawn from the parallel memoirs of David and Nic).
And David is nothing if not determined. When he learns is that his son has a particular problem with crystal meth, and he uses his training as a journalist to research the subject. He begins to get his first inkling about just how little influence he's likely to have on the boy's condition.
The drug, he learns, is rewiring Nic's brain, controlling his behavior in a way making intervention difficult and potential recovery unlikely. Worse, there may only be a small window – perhaps a matter of months – before Nic reaches a point of no return. Dad wants to believe in the power of love, but this hope fades as he stares at his computer screen, looking at chemist's abstracts about serotonin and dopamine. Parenting has come down to a blurry, midnight review of the periodic table of the elements.
The movie doesn't explain why Carell's character has so much free time on his hands, or why he is apparently the most lavishly compensated freelance writer in the history of journalism — the family lives in a fancy Northern California home (Nic returns to rob the place during one particularly desperate stretch).
The movie is casual in the way it invokes the family's obvious privilege, but that may be part of the message – the resources of money and of time do not help David in his mission to save his son. The disease is tenacious, and in this case heedless of class.
Eventually, it is too much for David, who reaches breaking point, and realizes he has to meet his obligations to his other children. He is defeated, and that's a tricky thing for an actor to play. Especially an actor like Carell, who tends to be overly muted in dramas, and is further handicapped here by a role that has him cycling through the same scenes and situations, as the pattern of addiction repeats itself. Chalamet, a more supple performer, is more modulated, and shows us flashes of flashes of the person Nic was before drugs took over his life.
The movie has a small but strong supporting cast — Amy Ryan is David's ex wife, who sees that he's reached his limit, and takes over as best she can, though at a point both parents (and Maura Tierney as David's second wife) know there is only so much they can do.