There are several ways that addiction can appear glamorous. There is the downtown club kid way. The grungy, leather wearing, cigarette flicking, punk rock problem child, whose pale complexion, and muddy eyes seem to scream in your face “Look at me, I am damaged. What are you going to do about it?”Then there is the melodramatic, consumptive hospital bed-ridden prince or princess. Tear stained and clutching at a parent’s hand, muttering promises of recovery as they struggle through their next breath.
And both of those portrayals exist. At least on a surface level. But it’s the in-between stages of addiction that are so rarely explored and even less well-portrayed. It’s the parent who watches their child squander a college education, unable to hold down a job. It’s the leach like sucking of money and resources out of a family’s account as the excuse after excuse loses its relevance. It’s the stuffing and vomiting, and isolation and need, gripping, sucking need that is the bottomless pit of addiction.
That’s Beautiful Boy, based on the memoirs of the real-life father and son, David and Nic Sheff. The film and the memoirs follow Nic’s see-saw of addiction, recovery, addiction, recovery and the toll it takes on his father, mother, stepmother, and siblings. Much has been said already about Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen’s decision to film Beautiful Boy from a detached, almost dissociative perspective that truly allows both Timothee Chalamet and Steve Carell‘s performances to shine through. Because truthfully, the emotional centerpiece of the movie is this deteriorating relationship between father and son. The man who watches helplessly as this boy who he loves destroys every last bastion of hope he harbored for the future. The boy who can no longer bring himself to care enough to repair this last tether to his own humanity.
You watch young Nic grow up, putting you in the shoes of his father David whose love for his child is one of the only beacons in the darkness of this film. You cannot truly enjoy observing Nic’s kindness, his love for his half-siblings, his musical talent and ingenuity without bracing yourself for the oncoming fall. When Nic repeatedly runs away from his family, screams at his father, demanding his money (money that we as viewers know will only end up snorted or injected), we are able to breathe a sigh of relief. At least now we can let go of that hope. We can finally hate this kid, except that we don’t. We don’t hate him because David doesn’t hate him, because the families of addicts can never seem to cross that threshold. No matter how many times it is squandered, we give those we love another chance. This is what David does for Nic. Time and time again.
It’s beautiful and sad. But more the former than the latter. Because addiction is ugly. It’s sad and pathetic, and it’s not glamorous at all except in the beginning when you put on the leather jacket and lean back in that hospital bed for the first time and make your promises to your family. And then you do it all again and the glamour wears off instantaneously.
Before David Sheff wrote his memoir of the same name, Beautiful Boy, he wrote an article for the New York Times recounting his son’s addiction and subsequent recovery. Except that after the article was published, Nic had relapsed again and was once more in the thralls of his addiction. And that’s how it goes. And sometimes you do recover for good. But it’s a long road that leads to that place, and as horrible as it is for the person dealing with the addiction, the people who love you are dealing with their own form of pain, and they are somehow even more helpless to stop it than you are.
Beautiful Boy is now playing at select theaters