Felix Van Groeningen’s latest film is based on two memoirs by David and Nic Sheff, father and son, recounting a harrowing tale of Nic’s crystal meth addiciton. Set in sunny California, Beautiful Boy seems somewhat abstracted from the grim realities of drug use. The film is agonisingly long and does well not to sugar-coat the often-simplified journey from addiction to recovery. The story plays out from the perspective of David (Steve Carell), the tortured father of meth-addict Nic (Timothée Chalamet) and seems to be more about his paternal frustration and guilt than anything else. Much of the film is set in David’s home, where golden hours grace the dark wood and glass interiors. His agony is disbelieving – how could his own son, raised in such comfort, have succumbed to the depravity of addiction? This highlights the underlying message of the film – that addiction can happen to anyone, in the same way that anyone can be vulnerable to disease. Flashbacks pepper the film, interrupting it with slightly sickeningly idyllic moments between father and son – laughing together in the car, surfing on the Californian coast, professing their love for each other. These rose-tinted vignettes, juxtaposed with their now fraught relationship, emphasise that this disease does not discriminate.
Timothée Chalamet’s performance swings from one extreme to another with unnerving ease - he’s manipulative, vulnerable, explosive, affectionate, pulling you in only to step back over the precipice again, into the oblivion of addiction. To begin with it is easy to buy into David’s mission to fix Nic – he knows what Nic needs, he can make everything better if Nic would only do what he says. But a few relapses down the line and this illusion of influence thins. The addiction is an insatiable parasite. It bores a hole in Nic that can only be filled by the drugs it thrives off. Love and care are square pegs to this round hole – they will never fill Nic with the ecstasy of that first time he tried meth.
David’s heroic but futile attempts to rescue his son side-line the other members of his family – his wife, their two small children, and his ex-wife (Nic’s mother). The whole ordeal moves in increasingly smaller circles around David and Nic. But this bubble eventually bursts, propelling father and son away from each other – David back towards the rest of his family, Nic to his mother in L.A. Driven by his cravings Nic becomes manipulative - stealing his little sister’s savings, pressing his father for more money and eventually breaking into his home to steal anything that will fund the precarious lifestyle of him and his girlfriend. David’s wife, Karen, played sensationally by Maura Tierney, is a quiet, caring constant for most of the film. But she inevitably comes to the end of her thoughtful silences. No longer able to tolerate David compromising the rest of his family for the sake of a lost cause, she demands that he cut all ties. Adrift, now living out of the boot of his car, lurching from one fix to the next, Nic’s fall towards complete self-destruction is unbroken. It is sheer luck that he doesn’t meet death at the bottom. From here he can only look up, and the film ends on this note of optimism. Having reached his nadir, Nic is now more accessible, and there is hope of reconciliation between father and son.
The soundtrack is the life-force that sustains this relentless storyline. It strings together short scenes in long sequences, slowly building tension. It carves out single moments of beauty or desperation. The regressions in an addict’s recovery can all to easily be blurred into one another, glossed over for your entertainment. But the reality is painfully repetitive. The music captures the nuances of every falter or progression – each slightly different from the last.
Reflecting on this sad tale of a ‘beautiful’ boy, the sentimentality and sympathy this film tries to evoke could initially be met with disdain. Apart from suggestive flashbacks of father and son sharing a joint, there seems to be no external corrupting forces that have driven Nic to meth addiction, or made it in any way inevitable. He is the principal agent of his destruction, and as well as the destruction of others – most obviously, his girlfriend. His financial security means that he has access to the best care and rehabilitation – places that most addicts would never glimpse the inside of. However, this misses the point. Addiction should not be dismissed as something that only befalls less privileged members of society. No matter how privileged you are, addiction can be equally pernicious.