Addiction, recovery and father-son relationships in 'Beautiful Boy'

14 Jan 2019 BY Michael Prescott in Film Features

7 mins
Beautiful Boy
Beautiful Boy

Based on the true story of a father and son's struggle through the latter's drug addiction, Beautiful Boy sees Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet play David and Nic Sheff in this sensitive, moving drama based on their own separate memoirs, adapted by the BAFTA Award® winning screenwriter Luke Davies, and from the producers of 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight.

In the early 2000s, David Sheff works as a freelance writer for a number of publications including The New York Times and Rolling Stone, whereas his teenage son Nic has been accepted into every college he's applied to. But this apparent contentment is suddenly disrupted when Nic goes missing for a couple of days. Upon his return, David immediately acknowledges a change in his son, recognising signs of drug use, and is worried by the change he sees. Though he's not a particularly strict father, and is shown to have held liberal, relaxed views on‘softer' drugs in the past,  this, he realises, is something else entirely.

Despite Nic's voluntary attendance at a rehabilitation clinic which initially progresses well, he eventually relapses and admits that his drug-taking has not only been occurring over a number of years, but that it's escalated from marijuana onto cocaine, ecstasy and even crystal meth. Despite the relapse, David is told not to worry about this setback by one of the practitioners, who insists that his son's chances of recovery are anywhere between 25-80%, and that "relapse is a part of recovery". This setback will not be Nic's last, and these are reflected in the style of the narrative, where phases of steady progress are suddenly jolted out of place by a sudden, vicious relapse, dashing the characters' hopes in one fell swoop, and ensuring the audience are forever on edge. These sequences also serve to heighten the emotional impact of the sweeter scenes and happier moments between Nic and his young siblings, who adore their elder brother and struggle to cope when he's either not there, or simply not quite ‘present'.

Parents will feel heard by this movie in a way that few other films have tried.

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York

Like many teenagers, Nic is not so impressed by the status quo and seeks to find his own direction in life. His room is covered in maxims, drawings and posters for bands like Nirvana,  with writers like Charles Bukowski particularly significant (Nic recites a portion of his poem called Let It Enfold You), and we see David pick up a book in Nic's room, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned. These titles not only hint at the duality found within Nic, but also within the film itself. Beautiful Boy tells two simultaneous stories: that of a father and of a son, and is based on two separate source texts; autobiographies from the pair, dissecting events from different points of view.

This theme of duality is a constant: before he learns more about the science behind the drugs, during one particular moment of frustration David yells at his son to take responsibility for his actions, claiming that only Nic can control them.Later, however, he sees a sign in a rehab clinic which reads "you didn't cause it, you can't control it, you can't cure it", and learns from a medical professional that the actual chances of successful recovery for crystal meth users is apparently in the single digits. The internet is also both a virtue and a vice: Nic exploits it to research the technique behind injecting safely, whereas David uses search engines and trawls websites to find out more about the science behind the drugs. Despite all this, the film never attempts to prescribe a cause or cure, nor any blame or responsibility, nor any easy answers for any one of its characters. As Into Film Young Reporter Alexa asked Timothée Chalamet on the red carpet at the London Film Festival: "How realistic should we be about the concept of saving one person from themselves?" This doesn't feel like a cautionary tale, or one which moralises anyone's behaviour, but simply presents the reality of drug addiction and its effects in an honest and authentic way.

Carell and Chalamet dominate the screen for the two-hour running time and both have been rightly lauded for their strong performances, with Timothée Chalamet already receiving BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for his work. Though initially known for comic roles, Steve Carell has moved from his comedic roots to more serious subjects in recent years, with titles such as Foxcatcher demonstrating his ability to deliver strong performances in big, dramatic roles. Chalamet, on the other hand, is a rising star with big things expected after his performances in Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird. With a huge teenage fan base, taking on the subject of substance abuse could have a wide impact on a mass audience, and it's a credit to Beautiful Boy that this has been handled with commendable responsibility and dedication, with the actor losing an incredible 18lbs for the role for further authenticity.

Timothée Chalamet's performance is undeniably superb. I had high expectations after his success in 'Call Me By Your Name' and these were thoroughly surpassed.

Alexa (18), Into Film Young Reporter

Beautiful Boy is an important example of how the issue of drug addiction continues to be explored sensitively and perceptively in popular culture. The focus placed upon the subject by all involved is particularly significant given that, as the end title cards confirm, the drug epidemic is the biggest killer of those aged under 50 in the United States. Given that addiction can never be cured - that individuals will forever be in recovery, taking one day at a time - the messages of Beautiful Boy remain as important and necessary as ever. 

Download our Beautiful Boy: Relationships and Resilience assembly resource to further explore these issues with your Into Film Club or in the classroom. 

Beautiful Boy is in cinemas across the UK from 18 January.

Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott, Curation Coordinator (Learning)

Michael has an MA in Film Studies with Screenwriting from Sheffield Hallam University. He has previously worked at the British Council and on the BFI Film Academy, and has volunteered at organisations including Sheffield Doc/Fest and Cinema for All.

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