BY SABA FIAZUDDIN ’21
Felix Van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy” is based on the memoirs of journalist David Sheff and his son, Nic. The film chronicles their harrowing experiences navigating drug addiction and surviving the horrific damage the disease inflicts on family and loved ones. David Sheff, played by Steve Carell (“The Office”), is a devoted father living in San Francisco with his second wife and two young children when he discovers that his firstborn teenage son Nic (Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”) has developed an all-consuming addiction to methamphetamine. Crystal meth, Nic says in the film, takes his world from black and white and injects it with color, making him feel confident, secure and alive. It also turns him from an innocent, exuberant boy to a conniving and emotionally manipulative person. In his first English-language feature film, Van Groeningen treats the delicate subject of addiction with sensitivity, fully etching out the predominant emotions of grief, anxiety, terror and helplessness that mark an addict and their home.
The film frequently flashes back to fragments of who Nic was before he began experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Before reaching college age, Nic is fully hooked on crystal meth and runs away from home to facilitate his growing drug dependency and escape his father’s watchful eye. Flashbacks to his youth illustrate a frequent cycle in the lives of addicts: breakdowns, attempts to become sober and then relapse. These scenes work to disrupt the chronological narration of the story, a tool that Van Groeningen most likely uses to help the audience understand the inescapable cycle of addiction that impacts addicts and their families. Chalamet portrays Nic with deftness and a quiet intensity, and Carell’s performance is equally strong and earnest. Like Van Groeningen, the actors are committed to portraying this story as skillfully and honestly as they possibly can.
“Beautiful Boy” was undoubtedly made with good intentions. It is a praiseworthy depiction of one family destroyed by the drug crisis and Nic’s addiction portrayed with the utmost complexity and sensitivity. However, it is impossible not to wonder about the millions of lives which aren’t depicted on screen. David and Nic Sheff belong to a white, upper middle class strata of society; their class is made clear by the urban landscape of Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the film is set. So “Beautiful Boy” does not and cannot reflect the stories of countless others who simply don’t have a choice but to be enveloped by addiction — and who can’t afford Nic’s many trips to rehabilitation centers. Nic’s story is rare because he survives, but it is worth considering that he is aided by his race and status. He, unlike others, is allowed a happy ending. The story that is left out, and one which is often absent from Hollywood cinema, is of those people who live on the margins of our society, those who struggle and go unnoticed everyday because of their race, sexual orientation or class.
When watching the film, viewers should keep in mind the broader context of addiction. However, Van Groeningen creates a hauntingly melancholic portrait of addiction with “Beautiful Boy,” one that serves as a wonderful tribute to Nic Sheff and his father and celebrates the mere hope of a tomorrow.