Opening 24 Jan 2019
Felix van Groeningen
Writing credits: Luke Davies, Felix van Groeningen, David Sheff, Nic Sheff
Principal actors: Steve Carell, Maura Tierney, Jack Dylan Grazer, Timothée Chalamet, Amy Ryan
Despite being an excellent movie based on the memoirs by David Sheff and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy is not easy to watch. This is a movie about what drug addiction does to addicts and to their families. It’s not the grittiest movie I’ve seen about drug usage – not by a long shot – but it’s realistic about how drugs take over lives, specifically in the case of Nic Sheff and his father David Sheff. It’s based on memoirs each of these men wrote about Nic’s addiction to crystal meth – David’s Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction, and Nic’s Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines. In his English-language debut, Belgian director Felix van Groeningen based his screenplay on these memoirs to create a ‘typical’ Hollywood film about addiction – addiction that’s become shockingly widespread in the United States.
On paper, the teenage Nic Sheff (Chalamet) has it all. He lives with his devoted father David (Carell), a journalist, and his step-mother Karen (Tierney), an artist, in California, with his much younger step-siblings. His life unfolds in an upper-middle class milieu, including the easy access to drugs, which he begins experimenting with while in high school. When Nic becomes addicted to crystal meth, David and Karen immediately take action, checking Nic into a rehab facility. Unsurprisingly, this is merely the first of many steps along a journey of self-destruction and grief for the whole family.
Chalamet is extraordinary in the role of a sweet and sensitive kid who becomes a conniving addict, and Carell’s embodiment of the anguished father, who will do anything to save his son, is outstanding. Tierney and Ryan (who pays Nic’s mother, who intervenes at a later stage during one of Nic’s countless relapses), are also good, although their roles are peripheral to the central relationship between father and son. In his attempt to “understand” his son’s addiction, David consults doctors about the effect of the drugs on Nic’s brain, attempting to find a rationale context in which to grasp Nic’s experience. And writing his memoirs does give David some control when he’s otherwise powerless. Yet what Beautiful Boy demonstrates is the essential futility and despair of a parent trying to fix an addiction from the outside. Of course intervention and rehab programs do work, but despite how informed David becomes, despite his resources vis-à-vis so many families, despite all the love he has for Nic, he can’t cure Nic’s addiction. Beautiful Boy isn’t an unnecessarily grim movie, it’s merely realistic, and this is hardly a new message. But given the abysmal statistics around drug addiction, overdose and death in the US it’s one we will keep hearing. (Diana Schnelle)