It’s going to be a long fall for anyone trying to tell apart Beautiful Boy and Boy Erased, two similarly titled melodramas based on acclaimed memoirs, in which one of the Lady Bird heartthrobs gets weepy while struggling with his parents over a pressing social issue (Timothée Chalamet and drug addiction in the former, Lucas Hedges and conversion therapy in the latter). Both films have been getting steady awards buzz for their young stars, each of whom already has an Oscar nomination under their belts before the age of 23. Can the Boy films cement Chalamet and Hedges as the Academy’s favorite young leading men? Now that both films have screened at Toronto, let’s examine their chances, as well as those of the films themselves.
Before Beautiful Boy premiered, there was some discussion over which of its two stars — Chalamet’s young drug addict or Steve Carell’s frustrated father — would run in lead. Having seen the film, it’s pretty clear. Though the movie is officially based on a pair of memoirs from the real-life father-and-son duo David and Nic Sheff, this is Carell’s movie. David is the one we open on, he’s the one whose memories power the film’s copious flashbacks, and when they’re apart, he’s usually the one we follow. Chalamet’s Nic is mostly there to be an object of his father’s conflicted emotions, and though he has plenty of screen time, the part isn’t as full as his breakout role in Call Me by Your Name, or even his short turn in Lady Bird.
Despite that, I think Oscar’s more likely to smile on the younger actor than the elder. As years of Best Supporting Actress races have proven, Oscar doesn’t mind an underwritten role as long as the performance is strong enough, and even the movie’s negative reviews have generally praised Chalamet’s magnetic acting. He’s got an acute case of what Roger Ebert used to call Ali MacGraw’s disease here — the deeper Nic sinks into the depths of his addiction, the more lithely beautiful he becomes. By the end, when things get grimmest, he’s practically a portrait of Rimbaud come to life.
Carell doesn’t get many modes to play either, with many critics I’ve spoken to finding him alternately glum and shrill. The actor’s also hamstrung by a fundamental issue: He’s playing a character whose emotional arc is all about becoming less active. David spends the entire film learning how to let go of his need to control Nic — at one point, a poster showing the “Three Cs” of Al-Anon gets prominent real-estate behind him— and while that’s surely good advice in real life, Oscar usually prefers its leading men to be slightly less passive. (In the film’s most exciting sequence, a brief car chase, David merely looks on in distress.) Recent Best Actor trophies have gone to characters who stood up to Hitler or trekked half-dead across a frozen wilderness, and while I suppose you could compare Carell’s role to Casey Affleck’s in Manchester by the Sea, director Felix Van Groeningen is too polite to match Kenneth Lonergan’s commitment to scraping the rawest emotional depths.
Festival reviews for Beautiful Boy have not been great, and I suspect Amazon may have to really hammer home the “message” elements if the movie is going to compete outside the acting categories. (Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney made some preliminary Best Supporting Actress lists, but both of their parts are fairly thin.) With Welcome to Marwen and Backseat yet to come, Carell seems likely to be making the rounds heavily this fall, while I’ve heard that Chalamet might not have another gargantuan promo tour in him again. That might not matter, thanks to the quality of competition. Best Supporting Actor seems relatively wide open this year, with A Star Is Born’s Sam Elliott the only heavyweight to emerge. Chalamet’s not at the level where he doesn’t have to show up to get a nod — only Denzel Washington and Daniel Day-Lewis are — but I wonder if the positive reception to his performance could make him reconsider. Even in an effort that doesn’t quite live up to his best work, I still think this beautiful boy’s got what it takes to land his second nomination.
There can be no category confusion with Boy Erased: As a religious teen struggling with his sexuality, Lucas Hedges is in nearly every scene of Joel Edgerton’s film. As in Beautiful Boy, where we know Nic Sheff is going to survive to write the book that movie’s based on, there’s not much suspense to Boy Erased. I’m guessing there are not a lot of people in the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival still on the fence about whether gay-conversion therapy is a good idea. But Hedges does a fine job selling his character’s journey, from genuine openness to the idea that he could be “cured,” to righteous anger at the abuse he and his fellow campers are suffering, and finally, to a quiet, clear-eyed dignity. The Academy tends to love bold truth-tellers who stand up against oppressive institutions, and Edgerton makes sure to fill the last act of the movie with plenty of telecast-ready speeches for his young star.
But Hedges’ efforts may be hampered by two things out of his control. The first is his age. Though he got a Best Supporting Actor nomination two years ago, competing in Best Actor is a different beast. With the exception of Chalamet last year, the Academy does not go for lead actors under 25. (Or even 30 — Daniel Kaluuya and Jesse Eisenberg are the only other actors in their 20s to score Best Actor nods in the past ten years.) The second is in the film’s focus. Critics have noted that the film seems to be intended more for the parents of queer children than the children themselves, and accordingly, the real transformations in Boy Erased belong to Hedges’s mom and dad, played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. The Australians both get big, showy, Oscar-y roles — Crowe’s a pastor who can’t reconcile his homophobia with his love for his son, while Kidman’s essentially doing her Lion character in Dolly Parton cosplay — and I could see a future where the two veterans capture the wind of the film’s awards campaign more than Hedges does. (Edgerton himself is enjoyably prickly as the camp’s lead therapist, but his most interesting character development happens in a title card at the end of the movie.)
Titles and stars aside, it’s striking how similar both Boy movies are, from the subtle mid-2000s period details, to the frequent use of flashbacks, to the public-service announcements over the credits explaining just how prevalent the issue they’re dealing with is. Each didn’t get quite the euphoric festival reception they might have hoped for, and it seems like the acting categories are where they’ll hope to make their mark this year. Fittingly, their Oscar ambitions rest on the backs of a couple of Boys.