I turned to my friend Annie with about forty-five minutes left in the film and whispered, “This is getting painful to watch.” And it was, and that was how it should be.
Felix Van Groeningen’s latest film, “Beautiful Boy,” starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, among others, tells the true story of a passionate father, David Sheff (Carrell) and his meth-addicted son Nic Sheff (Chalamet). And that is why it is painful to watch: the film aims to give its audience the slightest notion of what addiction, relapse, and recovery entail. The process spanned years, at times was unbearable, and almost always was heart-wrenching. For these reasons, the film was beautiful.
The film gets its title from the song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” by John Lennon, a song that David Sheff sings to Nic in his childhood. The title takes on a larger meaning as the film progresses and as David starts to lose his “beautiful boy” to drug addiction.
San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the road trips in between constitute the majority of the film’s landscape, providing breathtaking scenery accompanied by a dazzling soundtrack. Sampha, David Bowie, Nirvana, Sigur Rós, Mogwai, and Tim Buckley are some of the headliners. The musical accompaniments bolster every scene, setting the intended mood and underlying emotion. The Sheff house is an aesthetic masterpiece, inside and out. Pictures of Nic adorn David’s office; that smiling, beautiful boy in his youth, constantly a reminder of the son that David no longer knows.
To play the part of a convincing crystal meth user, Chalamet was asked to lose twenty pounds. A large fraction of his screen time as Nic Sheff is spent shooting up methamphetamine. His teeth turn rotten, his behavior erratic, violent, and self-destructive. For those simply infatuated with the twenty-two-year-old actor, or searching for the same serenity and romance of Chalamet’s breakout role in 2017’s “Call Me By Your Name,” skip “Beautiful Boy.” His performance, per usual, is brilliant but utterly tragic. Relapse, after relapse, after relapse. Sprinkled with periods of recovery, feigned gratitude, hope, and boyishness.
David Sheff, played by Carell, is possibly even more tormented by his son’s addiction than Nic. Over a span of years, he attempts to get him the best help possible, only for his son to repeatedly relapse, and in turn, break his father's heart. A mantra throughout the film is “relapse is a part of recovery,” a clearly forced coping mechanism told to David by the first rehabilitation center that Nic is sent to.
“Beautiful Boy” drives home one clear plot point: drug addiction affects everyone in users’ immediate circle. No one is exempt from the trials and tribulations of addiction. When the addiction reaches the point that Nic’s did, it begins to ruin those people’s lives as well. It is almost never confined to one person’s being; it transcends their own usage to torment the lives of those around them. Addiction is a demon the entire Sheff family faced, slowly stabbing away at the entire family because of how much they loved him.
Nic Sheff has been sober for eight years now. He and his father share their story in the hopes of helping other families with situations similar to their own. At the end of the film, simple, white text juxtaposed on a black screen tells the audience that overdosing is the leading cause of deaths for Americans under fifty.
I exited the theater queasy, heart heavy, unable to speak for minutes afterwards. I sat with the film for a long time, thinking it over. Its truth, its reality, its weight. This is the desired impact of “Beautiful Boy”—the turmoil of watching a beautiful movie about addiction, not even having experienced it.