The latest big release from the London Film Festival takes a look at the victim – or victims – of a young man’s drug addiction, in a debate that is often quick to dehumanise its subjects to make a point.
Filmmakers have all too often struggled to depict addiction in any meaningful way. Very frequently in movies the portrayal of someone struggling with drug addiction goes to one of two extremes: either by making the person addicted into a villain who chooses to hurt themselves and their loved ones in pursuit of a high, or by dismissing them completely as someone with no self-control, who should do better to look after themselves.
Either way, neither of these are takes that help people to understand what people suffering from addiction are going through, or indeed why they continue to chase whatever substance has these people in its thrall.
As someone who has been lucky enough to have never suffered any form of addiction my experience is entirely based on accounts from other parties. As a result, and with the two frequently travelled paths described above firmly in mind, I was worried and skeptical about Beautiful Boy.
The film is based on two separate accounts of a true story of addiction by father and son David and Nic Sheff; played respectively by Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet. David is utterly adoring of his son, and as Nic finds himself increasingly dependent on narcotics to function – namely Crystal Meth – David grows desperate to help his son overcome his addiction and find a way back to the loving relationship they once had.
At its core, Beautiful Boy is a film about conflict. Whether it’s the literal struggle as Chalamet’s character struggles and falters in his uphill battle against his addiction, or the fight between two divorced parents that stand to lose the last bridge between them. Even on a cerebral level as each of the characters’ thoughts fight for dominance in each of their perspectives: is Nic a victim in a near-impossible battle in his own body and mind that needs the support and love of his family to pull through, or is he a villain that will willingly go to any length to get his next fix, even if that means destroying his relationship with his parents?
The film’s direction and writing leads to Beautiful Boy never choosing a side for itself, instead laying down the facts for its audience to consider. In a way it feels like the Sheffs are on trial throughout, as potential trigger events for the start of Nic’s addiction are proposed, and David – as the film’s protagonist – is examined from the start, as the film casts its eye back across his efforts as a single parent and when trying to understand his son’s predicament. Memories are presented as fragmented scenes that gradually become one solid thread, and by the time that Beautiful Boy reaches its climax both David and the audience hit an epiphany: this was never going to be a problem with a simple, clean solution.
By choosing to remain ambivalent on the topic of addiction, Beautiful Boy gives itself a very difficult line to walk and not one that some people will agree with. Timothée Chalamet does a wonderful job however, of lending a great deal of humanity to the character of Nic: even when he finds himself in increasingly difficult binds, Chalamet’s performance maintains that level of honesty to the character. It would be easy for this kind of role to descend into after-school special levels of pathos but thankfully it never gets close to there.
Kudos is also due to Steve Carell and Amy Ryan, whose roles as Nic’s parents could easily descend into right-on self-sacrifice as they try to help their son recover. They both manage to sell the spikiness that has clearly evolved as these characters’ separation collides with a need to help their boy, and at the same time realising that they are unable to fight this battle for him.
Addiction is a horrible disease, and one that – as the film declares in its closing slates – is a major killer of young people through overdose. It seems obvious when written out, but it can also be a difficult thing to remember, that people suffering from addiction are in fact people; people that have the ability to recover if given the right support and treatment. Beautiful Boy does a lot to remind its audience to look past the epidemic and headlines, and instead look at the lives destroyed or threatened with destruction by addiction’s mere existence.
This film will no doubt end up courting accolades come award season in a few months, and it’ll certainly be deserving of anything coming its way. What will be more interesting though, is whether Beautiful Boy is able to capture the imagination of those in debate over addiction and treatment, and if it can help change the conversation to focus on the people that need help, rather than the reductionist pearl-clutching that such discussions all too regularly descend into.