Last week, I found myself at a Boston movie theater with no earthly idea of which film I wanted to see. As I googled the titles frantically trying to make a selection, I was drawn to “Beautiful Boy,” not only for its fantastic cast, but also for its intriguing story. Based on memoirs by David and Nic Sheff, “Beautiful Boy” recounts the story of a divorced-and-remarried father, played compellingly by Steve Carell, and his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet), who became addicted to meth, among other drugs, in his late teens. Carell and Chalamet might not seem like the most obvious pairing, as the former is best known for his comedic acting in “The Office” and the “Despicable Me” franchise while the latter has made a name for himself in dramatic roles in films like “Lady Bird” and his Oscar-nominated performance in “Call Me by Your Name.” However, the unlikely duo proves surprisingly compelling, as Carell’s uncanny ability to swivel between dramatic and comedic styles sells his performance as a loving, often goofy dad trying his best to help his son through addiction. Meanwhile, Chalamet captures the essence of angsty teenagehood with brooding scenes locked away in his bedroom, while still remaining likeable. Chalamet’s truthful portrayal as a loving son only makes it more difficult for the audience to watch him spiral deeper and deeper into addiction, recovery and relapse.
While this cycle was painful to watch unfold on the screen, it rung true. Every addict’s journey is different, but often there are elements of relapse within a recovery story. By presenting the overdoses and near-overdoses with the same level of detail and tenderness as Nic’s relationship with his father, the movie reminds us that overcoming addiction is not as simple as having a loving family, a stable home and access to rehabilitation programs. Although David is divorced from Nic’s mom, he is remarried to a woman who treats Nic as her own child. From this marriage, Nic has two silly, lovable younger siblings who provide an extra sense of responsibility for him. Jack Dylan Grazer, who some might recognize from his role as Eddie in the 2017 remake of “It,” is featured as a 12-year-old Nic in flashback, demonstrating the evolution of Nic’s childhood and the love he received from his father and step-mother alike. While these choices may have helped to convey the context for Nic and David’s close relationship, the shifts between past and present are sometimes difficult to follow and sometimes obscured the narrative. When Grazer was playing a younger Nic, it was obviously a flashback; however, Chalamet also featured in flashbacks more recent to the film’s main narrative, meaning some scenes meant to take place in the present moment become easily confused with just another flashback. Still, I can’t say that these occasional jumps prevented me from thoroughly enjoying the film.
The choice to show Nic’s comfortable upbringing serves a clear purpose through dispelling some myths about addiction, such as addiction only happening to people of a lower socioeconomic status — Nic is raised in a large, breathtaking home in the woods of Northern California — or to people without family support — David’s struggle to help Nic is the central conflict of the film. In fact, through Nic’s frequent spirals and even near-death experiences, the audience quickly finds themselves in a seemingly unbreakable cycle: every time Nic reconnects with his family, checks into rehab or decides that he wants to get clean, we can only expect that he will relapse again. Even when the movie seems like it might be finally nearing an ending, maybe even a happy one, it’s more likely that we’re about to watch Nic slip yet again into a meth binge.
But the message of “Beautiful Boy” is ultimately not a depressing one. At many points during the film, Nic’s journey seems basically hopeless, especially given that the narrative often follows David. As he seeks resources in order to better understand what’s happening with his son, even trying cocaine at one point to gain perspective on Nic’s experience, it quickly becomes clear that a father’s love and support alone are not enough to break the vicious cycle presented in the film. Instead, the film emphasizes Nic’s agency and internal struggles, emphasizing his control or lack thereof over his own journey. As the film is based on a true story, it ends with text on the screen. In addition to a brief update on the lives of Nic and David Sheff since the memoirs were published, the film also shares a hotline for anyone struggling with addiction or for their family members. The fact that David and Nic’s strained yet heartfelt relationship is rooted in real people’s stories, as well as the story’s portrayal by such talented actors, ultimately makes “Beautiful Boy” one of the most moving and thought-provoking films that I’ve seen so far in 2018.