When journalist David Sheff’s talented young son Nic all but vanished into meth addiction in his late teens, David coped the way a writer would: He researched, and he wrote. The result was a 2008 memoir, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, that would pair with Nic’s account of that time in his own book, Tweaked.
Felix Van Groeningen’s film adaptation Beautiful Boy spends plenty of time with troubled Nic, played mostly by Timothée Chalamet (and also Jack Dylan Grazer and Kue Lawrence at younger ages), but its perspective belongs to David (Steve Carell), who watches his college-bound son descend from reckless partying to utter destitution. As David struggles to cope with this inexplicable new reality of rehab centers and late-night skid-row drives, he flashes back to formative moments in their relationship—some of which are recast in an ominous new light.
The pain here is the pain of bearing witness. David must come to terms with his helplessness as he and his wife (Maura Tierney) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan) support David through a vicious cycle of rehab and relapse.
There’s an unspoken caveat to all this. Nic belongs to America’s most prized and protected demographic: wealthy white boys. Elaborate and incredibly expensive systems are in place to help him fight his addiction and ensure his success.
If Nic belonged to a different class, he would be punished, not treated, for his disease. His struggle wouldn’t be chronicled in memoirs and magazines. He would just die, on the street or in jail. Instead he shuffles among his mother’s sun-streaked poolside L.A. home, his father’s verdant San Francisco estate, and a slew of expensive rehab facilities.
Beautiful Boy has no pretensions of addressing broader social ramifications of drug abuse. It’s a narrowly focused, deeply personal story that nevertheless speaks to certain universalities of addiction. Regardless of where you come from, who your parents are, or even how many people are trying to help you, the battle for sobriety is an internal one.
The result of Beautiful Boy’s fidelity to the realities of chemical dependency is a sometimes frustrating pace. The nature of addiction is confounding and repetitive, and the film reflects that in what can feel like an endless cycle of rock bottom, recovery, repeat. There’s no phony transcendence here, no wishful epiphanies. It makes Beautiful Boy sometimes hard to watch, but it’s also what makes the movie distinctive and true.
Both the misery and the moments of reprieve are artfully rendered, thanks especially to terrific performances from Carell and Chalamet. Van Groeningen paints sublime portraits of Nic splashing through a lawn sprinkler with his adoring young half-siblings. He finds grim beauty too in Nic sprawled in a heroin stupor on a public bathroom floor, bathed in light from above like some wretched, motherless riff on Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Early on David worries that Nic is too enamored with art that indulges nihilism and glamorizes squalor. It’s a moment of foreshadowing, but also a statement of purpose from the filmmakers. Beautiful Boy does no such thing. It’s about finding a way to reconcile that the most agonizing and ecstatic moments are all part of the same life.
Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Starring: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney
Theater: Now playing, Uptown Theater