At the 2018 Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals two movies premiered that will likely be forever linked: Beautiful Boy and Boy Erased or the “white boys in trouble” movies, as they were dubbed by certain personalities on Twitter. Are these movies really comparable? Well, in essence one is about drug abuse and the other is about gay conversion therepy, those are fairly unrelated topics. One wonders if they’re both simply being linked because they came out around the same time and have the word “boy” in the title. Maybe, but then again there are some other similarities. Both films are set in the early 2000s, both are based on memoirs written by journalists, both end with title cards giving statistics about their respective issues, and both ultimately end up being more about the relationships between their respective white boys and their families. Whether or not the connection is ultimately forced and whether or not it’s fair to either film I think I’m going to run with it anyway, partly because I’d rather not write full reviews of both films, and partly because this link has been pretty well forged in my head whether it’s fair or not.
Beautiful Boy is based on the memoir of the same name by David Sheff (Steve Carell) and another memoir written by his son Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) and focuses in on the elder Sheff as well as his ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan) and current wife Karen (Maura Tierney) as they try to help the younger Sheff through a debilitating addiction to crystal meth that he has fallen into. Boy Erased on the other hand is told more from the perspective of its titular boy, an eighteen year old named Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) who lives in a particularly conservative area of Arkansas and is the son of a Baptist preacher named Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) and his wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman). Shortly after Eamons goes to some sort of Christian college events transpire which result in him admitting to his parents that he might be gay, which they do not respond to well and enroll him with an organization called Love in Action run by a guy named Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) which seems to want to pray away the gay.
Let’s start with Beautiful Boy, which is probably the film of the two I was anticipating more in part because it was directed by Felix Van Groeningen, who made the 2012 Belgian film The Broken Circle Breakdown which managed to really bring a lot of pathos to the lives of a pair of really interesting people. I certainly wouldn’t call his latest film poorly directed but I’m not really sure he was able to bring the same magic to this movie. What he does do well here is give a pretty good sense of what these characters lives have been like over the years. Little touches like the way he decorates Nic’s room and the way he picks locations do paint a bit of a picture and the occasional flashback scenes are done pretty effectively. He also does a pretty good job of directing his ensemble. Timothée Chalamet gives a fairly strong follow-up performance to his work in last year’s Call Me By Your Name and his general cherubic demeanor makes for an interesting contrast to the rather gritty situation he finds himself in. Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan are also quite good as his maternal figures. I’d say the weak link is actually probably the star, Steve Carell, who is an actor who I’m frankly starting to wonder might not have range to be a dramatic actor. His casting makes perfect sense on paper but something about the guy’s voice just makes it very hard for him to blend into a roll and I just really didn’t care for his presence here.
The bigger problem with this movie is just that it tells a very very familiar story. There isn’t really much of a novel hook to Nic Sheff’s addiction narrative, its patterns of recovery and relapse and recovery and relapse is more or less the same one you hear from most stories like this both in movies and in real life. The one and only reason why Nic’s story is being brought to the screen and not the several other stories like it is that Nic’s father is a freelance journalist who’s in a position to write a book about his experiences trying to get him help. That point of view is perhaps something that sets the movie apart just a little given that most movies about his subject matter would be told primarily from the point of view of the addict rather than the parent, but it’s still fundamentally the same story. Frankly I probably would have liked to see a bit more from Nic’s point of view, particularly early on because the movie never really delves into what drove him to start using meth in the first place. The film does suggest that David was a little too tolerant when he first found out that Nic was “experimenting” and that treating Kurt Cobain like a hero might not have been in Nic’s best interest, but outside of some vague talk about “filling a void” the movie really sidesteps that aspect of his journey.
Boy Erased is another case where the story being told might not be the ideal test case. There was a movie earlier this year about gay conversion therapy called The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which certainly had its merits but which I thought was sort of fundamentally flawed because it was being told from the perspective of a girl who was kind of aloof and never really believed in the ideas behind the camp she was sent to and that made her immune from the worst of what this kind of therapy had to offer. Boy Erased at least seems to be avoiding the same mistake at first, Eamons does seem to be a lot more at risk of being affected by the toxic philosophy at play, but his stay at this camp ends up being surprisingly brief and he ultimately sees through it all and comes out of the experience relatively unharmed. The focus seems to be less on the camp’s psychological torture and misguided worldview than on their general incompetence, namely their strange fixation on inherited family traits and at one point on the spelling errors in their manuals. Where The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes gay conversion therapy seem like little more than a rather lame summer camp, this makes it look like a poorly run night school. I wouldn’t have expected it at the time but somehow Deadpool 2 has managed to be the angriest movie about this subject despite only tackling the topic allegorically.
One of the commonalities between the two films is that both seem to be about as interested in the respective boys’ relationship to their family as much as they are in the boys’ actual problems. In the case of Boy Erased this sort of makes sense insomuch as being forced into a situation like this would almost certainly strain familial relations, but the movie is also a little unfocused on this front. The real Jared Eamons (whose real name is Garrard Conley) clearly has fairly mixed feelings about his parents and vice versa but the film might have benefited if it had taken a stronger stance on the subject on his behalf because you’re really not feeling a whole lot by the end. It doesn’t help that neither Russell Crowe nor Nicole Kidman seem to really understand the characters they’re playing, frankly neither actor has felt more Australian than they do here trying to play Arkansas Baptists. The focus on familial relationships is even more central to Beautiful Boy and is perhaps more problematic. The decision to have the whole story minus a handful of scenes be told from the father’s point of view rather than the son’s seems like a bold idea on paper but I don’t think it really leads to any overly unique insights and it also kind of just means the more passive character is given the stage for most of the movie. Parents love to think they’re more important to their grown children than they really are and there’s a certain narcissism in taking a story about someone else’s pain and making it all about yourself, which is kind of what happened with Beautiful Boy.
So were these movies really all that comparable in the end? Well when I started this I felt like it was a bit of a stretch, and in some ways it was, but ultimately I don’t think it was to off-base. The fact that they’re both based on memoirs is probably the bigger link than the fact that they’re both about “white boys with problems.” So if they are comparable which one is better? Well, that’s a little trickier. On a fundamental level I think Beautiful Boy is the better made movie. It has a cleaner narrative and overall it probably develops its characters better and is generally more competently made. Boy Erased by contrast is a lot messier and is less effective in bringing you on its central journey, but it’s also less familiar and brings up issues that feel less like total clichés. That movie is trying to say something even if it’s saying it clumsily while Beautiful Boy just feels like a sort of glorified after-school special without much to really say beyond “drug addiction really sucks for all involved.” That having been said I find both of these movies to be pretty inessential and I wouldn’t recommend either. These aren’t offensively bad movies but they also don’t really do anything to really set themselves apart and really work.
Beautiful Boy: ** out of Five
Boy Erased: ** out of Five