A Devastating Tale Of Addiction


2018 might just be the year that Hollywood looked at addiction and its causes, and asked us to stare along. With films like Ben Is Back, A Star Is Born and Beautiful Boy all getting award season release dates and major studio love, this theme seems personal to the storytellers of our time. Addiction is not a new subject matter- sex addiction in Shame; alcoholism in Flight; and drug addiction in Half Nelson and Magnolia, have all been handled over and over again on film.

Many times these stories are based on biographies, (Lady Sings The Blues and Walk The Line), and are told with care and caution because the characters are so well loved. And in that care is where confrontation and love can coexist and hopefully change, and where real-time results will occur. Belgian director and filmmaker, Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) gave that love and care in his first english speaking film, Beautiful Boy, the story of Nic Sheff and his addiction to methamphetamines and the way his family, specifically his father David, fought for his life.

Chalamet’s performance is stunning and worthy of attention.

In the film, we meet the Sheff family. Nic, played by Timothée Chalamet, is an exceptional student and writer.  He loves to surf, and is very close to his father David. David Sheff (Steve Carell) is an affluent writer living outside of San Francisco with his second wife Karen (Maura Tierney) and their two young children. The film starts with Nic being checked into rehab for the first time, and while there is a consistent forward timeline showing Nic’s struggle with meth, Van Groeningen uses a series of music-driven montages to show Nic and David’s past. This back and forth technique of Beautiful Boy almost feels like a parent searching for the exact moment or cause regarding the drug addiction; like memories examined and every action questioned.

The real David and Nic Sheff

So here’s something to know before you go see Beautiful Boy: Nic Sheff is still alive and is currently thriving. Based on the autobiographies of Nic, Tweak: Growing Up On Methamphetamines and of David, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, we know that the father/son team has made it so far, as they both continue to write and travel the U.S. sharing their story and talking about drug abuse, it’s causes and how to confront it. That’s the good news. I say it’s important to know that Nic is alive because Beautiful Boy is two solid hours of tears and devastation! Just when you don’t think it can get any worse, it does.  And if anyone you’ve loved has struggled with addiction, then Beautiful Boy feels like a punch in the face. The point is made that drug addiction is complicated, destructive, and not a pretty luxury of the rich and famous. It’s a disease that’s common, and many times it’s a product of undiagnosed mental illness and other health issues. We all have our vices, our escape routes; Nic Sheff found his through meth.

Some will say that Beautiful Boy is “Oscar bait” – purposely dramatic and depressing so that it can guarantee gold. I say phooey on that. While it’s not your blockbuster Black Panther that can easily be watched and enjoyed multiple times, Beautiful Boy is an important story with phenomenal performances from the two key characters. Timothée Chalamet has already been nominated for a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild and a Critic’s Choice award, and I would bet money he will be nominated for an Oscar. This performance, added to his breakthrough in last year’s Call Me By Your Name, makes me think of Jennifer Lawrence a few years back and her meteoric rise to her own Oscar win.

I went back and watched interviews with Nic Sheff from years ago. His emaciated frame, long curly locks and sorrowful eyes make Chalamet a perfect physical fit for the role. But it’s the raw emotion Chalamet gives that seems so honest and effortless. Chalamet’s performance is stunning and worthy of attention. Steve Carell also delivers as father David Sheff. While we love the comedic Carell known for Michael Scott on The Office and as Gru in Despicable Me, it’s wonderful to see him tackle this weighty material, and do it well.  In short, Beautiful Boy features excellent acting, worthy of Oscar nominations (and wins!), and is not just something trying to cheat its way to a statuette.

I will end with this… Director Van Groeningen said he was drawn to this story because “It shows the dark corners of life, and when you exist in those dark spots it makes you appreciate the light when it appears.” While I think this is true, Beautiful Boy doesn’t show you much of the light. It ends with brief information on the Sheff family and with the radical statistics of drug use in America. This storytelling tactic reminded me a lot of The Pursuit Of Happiness and its two hours of pure sorrow followed by two literal minutes of happy tears. I for one needed a little more hope. So I looked up Nic and David Sheff and watched interviews and speaking engagements. I asked friends who had read the autobiographies what they thought of their story. I thought long and hard about vices and how mental illness can lead to addictions. These must be the actions that Van Groeningen was hoping the elicit.

While Beautiful Boy is a hard watch, I do think that it was made with care and with every hope that it could be used as a tool to confront with love. When a life that only sees the hollowness of the mundane everyday, using drugs to escape, can actually find help and change through family and community, one might then see the love and magic that are in life’s simplest moments.