Told largely from the perspective of David Sheff (Steve Carell), the father of 18-year-old Nic (Timothée Chalamet), who struggles with crystal meth addiction, Beautiful Boy is an agonizing film adaptation of memoirs written by the father-son duo: Beautiful Boy (2008) by David Sheff and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines (2009) by Nic Sheff. The crucial challenge for director Felix Van Groeningen is to distinguish his film from others in the addiction archives, capturing an elusive disease with uniqueness and poignancy without teetering into the realm of cliché. Groeningen does this by focusing on character relationships, not falling prey to plot prescriptiveness.
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott writes that as “much as [Beautiful Boy] may want to illuminate the realities of addiction, it mystifies David and Nic’s experiences, leaving too many questions — how and what as well as why — swirling in the air.” Scott misses the point: the “how and what as well as why” is addiction. Films that do pretend to unlock answers to addiction often fall victim to over-sentimentality.
For the sake of transparency, I bring a bias here: I’m in recovery. Addiction is “cunning, baffling, and powerful,” as the rooms of recovery reiterate. One of the most powerful scenes in the film comes after Nic relapses, and David and Karen (Nic’s step-mom, played by Maura Tierney) come to see him in rehab. Nic begins to cry because he doesn’t have any answers to how he’s ended up there again. Nic, like myself and virtually every addict I’ve ever met, feels better when he’s high: “I felt better than I ever had, so…I just kept on doing it.” And then it takes more drugs and booze to feel better until they simply don’t work anymore. It’s an unsatisfying answer, to say the least, and it’s one of the primary reasons why addiction is so hard for families to grapple with.
The most engrossing addiction films—think Basketball Diaries or Requiem for a Dream or Trainspotting—depict the darkest moments of drug addiction. Groeningen doesn’t shy away from portraying the depths of Nic’s addiction, but shock value isn’t the primary method to propel the narrative either; the film isn’t about drugs, after all, it’s about the people who fall victim to them. The climax of the film is distressing, to say the least (spoiler alert)— Nic overdoses in a public bathroom—but the film never exploits drug usage as a default mechanism to drive the plot forward. The truth is that the swirling in the air of “how and what as well as why” is exactly what addiction does. This isn’t a copout; this is the truth.
David is desperate to fix Nic. He researches addiction and interviews doctors. He even takes crystal meth to try to better understand. He is a writer, after all. But this is a subject he will never quite understand and the film, ultimately, is about his journey to accept that there is nothing he can do to save Nic.
While sitting in the theater, I couldn’t help but be hyper-aware of what active addiction did to my own friends and family, especially my parents—the thoughts that still haunt my father when the phone rings late at night or I’m not on time for a family gathering. What does it do to a father or a mother or a sister or a brother for their son or sibling to disappear for days at a time? This is the essence of Beautiful Boy. And it’s painful.
The film is authentic because the emotional turmoil—the desperation—from Carell is genuine. It’s easy for a director to inject an addiction narrative with recovery jargon and AA meetings. But that is recovery, not addiction.
As Anna Iovine writes for Vice: “Beautiful Boy doesn’t hide the ugliest parts of addiction…But all I could think of while watching Beautiful Boy is all the pain that I wasn’t seeing, and how we willfully turn away from the plight of addicts without privilege and resources…Watch it to remind yourself that there are millions of stories like Nic’s, but they won’t have the opportunity to be made into books or films.” While walking out of the theater with one of my oldest friends, I considered where I would be if it wasn’t for family, blood or otherwise. Getting sober, with love and support, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Without that love and support, I wouldn’t be here, writing this. And so it’s important, to me at least, to consider what can be done for those who want help, but have no idea how to get it, or no ability to get it. I can understand, as well as anyone, the offscreen pain that Iovine writes about. That’s a character in Beautiful Boy that doesn’t have a byline.