Beautiful Boy depicts family in throes of son's drug addiction
There is a tendency for stories in American independent films to meander, as they wander from moment to moment, with no clear plan of progression. Their promotional trailers can end up seeming disjointed, as the plot is connected more so by an idea than by momentum of the story. The question of these movies is not what happens, but what they are about.
Beautiful Boy — in limited release since Oct. 12 and now open to wider audiences — is about a young man struggling with drug addiction, and his father’s reckoning with the issues.
The film is an adaptation of real-life events from the memoirs Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, by son Nic Sheff, and Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by father David Sheff.
David is a journalist, who first put his son’s struggle into print with the New York Times Magazine article, “My Addicted Son.” In both books, as in the article and the film, the story is of Nic’s addiction to crystal methamphetamines and the damage his struggle brought to his family — his divorced mother and father and their respective spouses, as well as David’s children, Jasper and Daisy.
Nic’s addiction is the kind of story that could only work in the format of a feature film if Nic was a character the audience cared about, if his story had a strong emotional value. Beautiful Boy is in a strong position due to its leading actors, with Steve Carell playing the bearded David, bringing the warmth of his traditionally comedic parts into the parental role and with Timothée Chalamet as Nic, the actor’s disheveled hair and easy charisma infused within the role. Nic is a rebel and Chalamet played a similarly disinterested role to great effect in the 2017 film Lady Bird. The brooding that Chalamet is capable of makes the reveals of his lopsided smile all the more valuable.
David is concerned with his son’s drug use, and his reckoning tends to be the focal point of the film. Beautiful Boy opens with a scene in a scientific office, as David asks about the effects of crystal meth. Pointedly, he states that he is there as a father, not as a reporter. The film does not tend overall to follow the style of a journalistic investigation as a way of relating to the personal. The potential of telling a story that way might have been more effective toward showing the message Beautiful Boy seems to want to tell: it’s hard to escape addiction.
In Nic’s journey, it is certainly easy to see his repeated failings or relapses. He goes clean for months until the point in which he steals $8 from his half-brother or goes completely off the grid and out of communication’s reach. In his book, David writes of drug rehabilitation program success rates, “I am quoted a range from 25 to 85 percent, but a drug and alcohol counselor familiar with many programs says that the figures are unreliable.” He offers the information a nurse told him: “‘The true number is in the single digits,’ she says. ‘Anyone who promises more is lying.’” Drug use is a prison for addicts, and it has a high rate of recidivism.
At one significant moment in the story, “Sunrise, Sunset” from Sheldon Harnick’s and Jerry Bock’s Fiddler on the Roof is played. The song is about the aging of children as seen from the perspective of the parents — “Wasn’t it yesterday when they / Were small?” It hits the right emotional notes and highlights the role of parental responsibility in Beautiful Boy.
As much as the film is about Nic’s struggles with drugs, it is also about David’s struggle with Nic, trying to reconcile his memory of the kid Nic was — played by Kue Lawrence, Zachary Rifkin and Jack Dylan Grazer in flashbacks — and the troubled young man he has become.
In “My Addicted Son,” David writes, “I was bombarded with advice, much of it contradictory. I was advised to kick him out. I was advised not to let him out of my sight.” The information available to him is not enough to avoid mistakes, and he tries his best to help his son return to being who David remembers — the “Beautiful Boy” of the film’s title and John Lennon’s eponymous song. Lennon sings, “Close your eyes / Have no fear / The monster’s gone, he’s on the run / And your daddy’s here.” If only David could make Nic’s monsters disappear.
Beautiful Boy takes its struggles and its warm characters and brings them through a meandering process depicting the various problems the Sheff family experienced on its difficult road. The format fits the story: every day, there is a new struggle and there are new challenges of resolve. Forward momentum is not a guarantee. Even as Beautiful Boy is a strong film, it lacks thematic organization, and its pacing can be taxing. Ideas do not necessarily make the best stories.