Substance use disorder depicted across all formats seems to carry the message “do drugs and you’ll die.” A beginning to an end, with a very clear narrative. Beautiful Boy portrays this matter that we all know to be harrowing slightly differently.
Based on the memoirs of father and son, David’s Sheff’s Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addictions and Nic Sheff’s Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy recounts the journey of Nic’s battle with methamphetamine addiction. The beauty of the film lies exactly in this — its stark nature and raw illustration of drug dependency from the perspectives of both father and son. Early on, addiction becomes portrayed far from an individual trouble, but a familial disease that affects everyone in its path. For those who have suffered from addiction or have first handedly experienced its heart wrenching effects from a battle with a loved one, the film does an astounding job in realistically depicting the ongoing trials of use, sobriety, relapse and recovery. Its most dominant theme is perhaps this — drug addiction as an ongoing tribulation, damaging to the both the user and those around them.
The opening scene begins with David seeking help in understanding the effects of methamphetamines on his son and how to best help him. The film then retrogresses to a year prior, where Nic’s increasingly erratic behavior and absence become cause for his father’s concern and his soon admittance to rehab. Unlike many films, which follow a timeline of drug abuse, Beautiful Boy diverges from this norm with its time jumps, through which addiction is captured in various points of Nic’s adolescent life. Artistically enthralling, this non-sequential illustration of Nic’s reoccurring battle with methamphetamine addiction is illuminative of the ongoing struggle addiction poses. It is stated in the film that relapse is an ongoing part of recovery and plays a dominant role in regaining control of one’s life and addiction. We see just that through these vignettes of time.
Steve Carell’s and Timothée Chalamet’s portrayals of David and Nic Sheff, respectively, are among the film’s many strong suits. Their performances are deeply emotional and gripping, playing their due role in bringing to life this heartbreaking story. Beautifully reminiscent of the devotion and unequivocal love of a father for his hurting son, the chemistry between the two is natural and effortless. In particular, Chalamet, Hollywood’s new golden boy, in ranks with the likes of James Dean and Leonardo DiCaprio, is nothing short of brilliant, capturing the persistent pain of his character.
The 18-year is depicted as a talented writer, athlete and loving sibling who comes from a well-to-do family of established journalists and an artist — he seems to have the world within the palms of his hands. This is a major strength of the film — we never know why or how Nic first starts using substances, and by steering away from the stereotypical depiction of one who uses drugs, the film suggests that drug abuse has the potential to affect anyone.
Carell’s performance itself is emboldening and shows the unyielding love of a parent. Through Nic’s recurring placement in rehab and halfway homes to his experiences with sobriety, relapse, and the continued cycle, David stands by his side and endures his own emotional debilitation, coming to the conclusion he cannot save Nic, but he cannot and will not give up on him. Through time jumps, we see him to grips with the reality of his son’s condition, this child whom he raised, and understanding that it is not solely Nic’s trouble, but his and his family’s as well.
The setting of San Francisco is present in Groeningen’s movie, from beautiful residences and ocean cliffed roads right down to its grittier nightlife, which still manages to encapsulate a tasteful flair. Though essential to capturing part of the essence of substance use, the artistic way that Beautiful Boy plays with time can sometimes diminish the powerful story on screen and thus, the film’s ability to fully resonate. Viewers might experience a detachment from the emotions of the characters in their attempt to simply understand what is going on. Though these shifts between relapse and sobriety are clearly needed to show the exhaustively repetitive nature of addiction, the artist’s lens through which this is depicted could have been minimized. Addiction is far from romantic and should not be depicted as such.
Yet, perhaps it is this confusion about time that distinctly establishes Beautiful Boy as separate from other films about drug dependency. There is a similarity in journeys of those with substance use disorders that these nonlinear sequences bring to light. There is never a clear answer about how to go about addiction or when it ends. There is no resolving conclusion. Rather, the film extracts a beautifully raw and compelling illustration of the pain and emotionally toiling experiences that come and go repetitively with substance use disorder, even when they might have appeared to be over. This is the beauty of Groeningen’s direction and Luke Davies’s narrative, the beauty of Beautiful Boy.
Isabelle Philippe is a Senior in the college of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.