“Relapse is a part of recovery.”
So says a drug counselor in the terrific but somewhat flawed new film Beautiful Boy. The film, out today, is based on the memoir of the same name by journalist David Sheff, with passages of his son Nic Sheff’s own memoir, Tweak (Growing Up On Methamphetamines) thrown in for good measure.
Let me be clear: this is not a feel-good movie.
You will not be entertained; on the contrary, you will be haunted and emotionally-drained by the end. It’s not an easy film to watch, especially if you are a recovering addict (which, of course, I am) or a parent who has stood by and watched their child’s bright light dim and, ultimately, completely fade to black.
So, “why,” you may ask, “would I want to watch this film?”
Well, there’s an easy answer to that one: The two leads, Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, are perfect. The script by Luke Davies (who also wrote the absolutely unforgettable 2016 film Lion) and the film’s director, Felix Van Groeningen, for the most part, gets everything right: The simultaneous quiet desperation and outrage parents experience–a war from within, if you will – as they lose their children.
The thing is, when Nic is off the drugs, he’s a loving son and attentive big brother and, honestly, like so many addicts are when they’re clean, bright, funny, and sweet. When he’s back on the meth, he’s a manipulative, angry shell of a human being; a husk. It’s a testament to Chalamet’s performance that as monstrous and horrible as his character is to his family, we find ourselves sympathizing with him. One of the worst parts of being an addict is the loneliness, the self-awareness, the knowledge that you’re hurting the people you love the most, coupled with the greedy intensity, the insatiable desire for more, more, more, even though you know your soul is slowly withering away.
I’ve always loved Steve Carell. The man has such a down-to-earth, likable presence onscreen. He’s reached dark depths before in the well-made but completely frigid “Foxcatcher” and, to a lesser degree, “Little Miss Sunshine.” Here, he digs so deep into the role and displays such quiet, concentrated, outrage, he completely disappears into the role. Yet, he has moments of tenderness that almost dare you not to quake with sadness and tears. There’s a moment where the movie flashes back to a moment where he sends his son on a plane to stay with his ex-wife (played by the wonderful but, in this film, kinda-sorta underused Amy Ryan) and expresses his love and devotion that had me blubbering like a baby
Maura Tierney also shines as David’s second wife. There’s a moment when she tries to chase down Nic in her car, all the while holding back tears that it has come to this: A car chase in an attempt to save her stepson’s soul.
These are all powerful moments and there is no doubt in my mind that this will be remembered during awards season, but I’m afraid that for all it gets right, I have a few quibbles. For one, they show Nic strung out. A lot. And yeah, I’m afraid that it gets a bit repetitive. It also pulls several punches: In Nic’s memoir, in order to score drugs, he resorts to prostitution. There’s also a sequence in the movie that strays completely from the book where Carell’s character scores and experiments with meth. I get why they did it – so he could understand why his son is so drawn to the drug – but it just felt wrong to include something that, as far as I know, based on what was written in the elder Sheff’s memoir, never happened. On top of that, the film hops back and forth in time which, while sometimes effective, doesn’t allow certain scenes to breathe. They feel rushed.
In the end, though, the film has the courage not to spoon feed a happy ending to us. In addiction, there are no easy answers or guaranteed Happy Endings; and just like the film’s final embrace between father and son, this terrific but flawed movie’s ultimate message is that, when it comes to the disease of addiction, as contradictory as this might sound, you can either hang tight to your loved one and hope for the best … or learn to let them go.