You know this story. Whether or not you’ve read David Sheff’s memoir Beautiful Boy or Nic Sheff’s memoir Tweak, you’ve likely heard — or lived — the film’s central scenario: a parent tries desperately to save their drug-addicted child, but finds his best efforts further alienate or enable the child’s behavior; the child, meanwhile, struggles to see his addiction as a disease rather than a personal weakness, and resorts to lying, stealing, relapsing again and again, and transforming into a dark shade of his former self.
Before delving into the film’s social significance, I have to nerd out over its cast. Steve Carell, the man behind the obnoxious Michael Scott, the cartoon villain Gru and, recently, the chauvinist provocateur Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes, delivers a remarkably subdued performance. His David Sheff is equally nuanced — though very, very different — than Carell’s heretofore greatest dramatic turn as John du Pont in Foxcatcher, the role that earned him his first and only (but certainly not last) Academy Award nomination.
Beautiful Boy also sees Carell reunited (sort of) with his Office wife Amy Ryan — here, they are Nic’s divorced parents, arguing over the phone about the best way to support their son. (If Office fans want to think of this as the next chapter in Michael and Holly’s relationship, they’re going to have to adjust to a drastically different tone.)
Timothée Chalamet does his thing, which is being the young Leo DiCaprio of the 2010s. (This could serve as his Basketball Diaries period.) I fell in love with Chalamet last year for his Oscar-nominated performance in Call Me By Your Name, and I wasn’t alone — the 22-year-old actor has earned a Cumberbatchian internet following and even become a sort of object of interest among some hip-hop stars. But you don’t have to have an unhealthy obsession with the actor’s androgynous looks, adorable personality or meme-able association with peaches to be moved by his work in Beautiful Boy. Chalamet is, in fact, beautiful, and with his big, deep-set eyes, pale skin and thin frame, he slides easily and somewhat disturbingly into “heroin chic.” But Chalamet never feels like he’s wearing the costume of a drug addict in order to show off his acting chops. He feels authentically young, confused, loving, intelligent, sick, conflicted and occasionally repugnant. His Nic is sympathetic without serving to glamorize drug addiction.
Nic’s drug of choice is methamphetamine, though he’s tried about everything. We never see Nic in the throes of a tweaking, paranoid, skin-picking meth episode — getting high seems to produce calm and introspection, a short vacation from being consumed by the black hole inside of him that he can’t cure or explain. Of course, as his addiction deepens, he becomes more irritable and irrational, but doesn’t hit the subterranean rock bottom of, say, Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad or Jackson Maine in this year’s A Star Is Born.
Beautiful Boy doesn’t exactly shy away from the often crude realities of drug addiction, but it also doesn’t seek to horrify audiences with close-up shots of infected track marks, dirty needles and the like. Nic is afforded much more dignity than the characters of Requiem for a Dream and Kids. He also happens to come from a stable middle to upper-middle class family: his main source of money is his parents, and though he sometimes has to steal to support his addiction, he never has to endanger himself for funds; he has a safe place to crash when he’s most desperate; he has access to a computer to search out safe injection methods; and his parents sign the checks for his multiple stints in rehab. The odds were against Nic to survive, but his path to recovery was still more accessible than millions of others battling drug addiction.
The familiarity of Beautiful Boy’s story is both its strength and weakness. It’s not hard to root for the Sheffs, but I never felt like I really knew them, or understood what drove Nic’s original emptiness. The film hopped around its timeline, and seemed to flash back or forward when I was becoming most invested in a scene. As Chris Gardner of the Hollywood Reporter pointed out in his review (a great piece discussing the many addiction narratives in 2018’s Oscar contenders), “[D]irector Felix van Groeningen’s decision to tell a nonlinear story robbed the film of the full emotional wallop I experienced when I read the two memoirs.” Beautiful Boy begs you to pick up the Sheffs’ books and fill in the gaps.
You can call the film a bit bland and saccharine (and plenty have), but any media that offers a truthful depiction of addiction in the midst of the opioid epidemic should not be dismissed. We need to hear these stories often, both to reassure the millions of families affected by addiction that they’re not alone, and, most importantly, to remind us to keep the epidemic at the forefront of our minds when making healthcare decisions, advocating for social justice and choosing our representatives.
Beautiful Boy reinforces its purpose in the end credits, citing the fact that 72,000 lives were lost to overdoses in 2017, among other sobering facts. It may not be the fist-raised call-to-action that topped off BlacKkKlansman, but it’s no less important.
Your reaction to the movie may be determined by your own relationship to the subject matter. If nothing else, it will likely spur you to join me on the “Chalamet for Best Actor” bandwagon, or to revisit the lovely John Lennon song for which the film was named.