Two-thirds into A Beautiful Boy, Timothee Chalamet’s Nic Sheff breaks into his childhood home while his dad (Steve Carell), step-mom (Maura Tierney) and two younger siblings are away. By this point in the film, he has been in and out of rehab and repeatedly relapsed in his fight against drug addiction, chiefly crystal meth. At this moment, he’s about as far away from the wagon as you can get, willing to rob his own family just so he can sell some old stuff and score enough money to fund his next high. His family comes home earlier than expected, however, forcing him and his girlfriend-of-the-moment to flee out a back door. His younger brother is the only one who sees them.
It’s but one of many moments in the film which hit especially close to home. I’ve never been in the position of the addict stooping quite so low, but I have been a younger sibling to an addict, watching as a very different person suddenly seems to be wearing your loved one’s skin and does something like robbing your piggy bank for drug money. In fact, my experience happened in roughly the same era – the late 90s/early 2000s – depicted in the film.
All of which is to say A Beautiful Boy rang especially true for me. It probably will for a lot of people. Its specific subject and setting might be crystal meth addiction and the 90s, but it could very easily be 2018 and opioids (more than 130 Americans die per day from an opioid overdose, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) and still be the same basic movie. Now, does this ring of authenticity and topicality automatically make A Beautiful Boy a good or even great movie? No, but it helps immensely.
The plot: David Sheff (Carell) is a freelance journalist struggling to deal with his son Nic’s self-destructive behavior. After a brief stint in rehab, Nic heads off to college where he quickly falls back into addiction, forcing David to repeatedly stop what he’s doing immediately and fly across the country to either save his son or, he fears, identify his body in the morgue. The toll this takes on him and the rest of the family is considerable, particularly on the younger siblings who idolize Nic and don’t understand what’s wrong with him. With each new stop on Nic’s cycle of addiction, David reflects back on everything he did and did not do as a father which led to this, blaming himself and doing everything he can to save his son.
Translation: be prepared for plenty of short flashbacks, as David thinks back on all the signs he noticed but ignored and moments he wish he could have back. The biggest battle David has to fight, ultimately, is learning to accept that there’s actually only so much he can he do to help. The only one who can truly save Nic is himself, and if you don’t know the backstory behind the film the dagger hanging everything is the ever-present fear that Nic’s not going to make it.
Spoiler: he does. Just barely. The phrase “the doctor said it’s a miracle he survived” is uttered at one point.
“Based on a True Story” is the first thing you see in the entire film, and that’s because both David and Nic are real people. They’ve each written best-selling memoirs about their experiences – Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David. This proves to be both the greatest strength and weakness of the film: It’s what lends the story such authenticity, but it’s also what gives Beautiful Boy a slightly bifurcated feel.
The script is adapted from both memoirs. However, the screenwriters – Luke Davies and Felix Van Groeningen (who is also the director) – give far more weight to David’s side of things. So, for the majority of its runtime, Beautiful Boy is a heartbreaking account of addiction as seen through the father’s eyes, and Carell’s masterfully understated work makes another compelling case for an Oscar nomination.
Then there’s a rather sudden switch. David retreats from focus and Nic becomes the central character, with the film charting his attempts to get clean, moving to California and in with his birth mother (Amy Ryan) for support. It feels a bit late in the game to present his point of view, but it’s also possibly a story choice born out of necessity since IRL David simply wasn’t around for most of the stuff which happens in this portion of the story. Also, you cast Chalamet for a reason, and this is easily where he shines the brightest. This hand-off doesn’t work as well as it could, but it’s not enough to ruin the movie.
Perhaps I simply identify more with the Carell character than Chalamet, but the overall story presented in the film is one of ongoing struggle, eventual acceptance of limitations, and unending love and support. It does all of this in a rather direct way, resisting the temptation to sentimentalize or manipulate and might strike some as somewhat incomplete since the exact reason Nic starts using is never fully explained. That’s because there is no good, juicy dramatic explanation. As he says at one point in the film, as a rather sensitive child of divorce there was just a hole inside of him which he kept trying to fill with drugs.
I hope some will be able to see this movie and either seek help or feel seen and understood, depending on which end of the addiction spectrum they fall on. I know I did.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A moving portrait of addiction that somewhat fumbles its handoff from Carell’s POV to Chalamet’s but makes up for it with awards-worthy performances.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- As I referenced in the review, Amy Ryan plays Nic’s birth mother and shares multiple scenes with Carell. That would be such a perfect opening for a “Michael Scott and Holly Flax ride again!” joke if the subject matter wasn’t so serious.
- Nic is now a writer for Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, which seems entirely appropriate.
- The title comes from a song John Lennon wrote for his son and in one of the flashbacks we see Carell sing it when Nic is much younger. The real David Sheff interviewed John and Yoko three months before John’s death and wrote a book about them. So, obviously, he’s a bit of a fan.