‘Beautiful Boy’ Is A Cathartic Gift For Families Like Mine

Leaving the theater, I felt like I did after my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting: understood, and far less alone.
In "Beautiful Boy," a family's most private ordeal with meth addiction plays out on the big screen.
In "Beautiful Boy," a family's most private ordeal with meth addiction plays out on the big screen.
Francois Duhamel, Courtesy of Amazon Studios

In 2014, I found out my younger sister was addicted to methamphetamine. Terrified and panicked, I read everything I could about the drug in an attempt to understand what was happening to her, and by extension, what was happening to us ― her family. So when I discovered Beautiful Boy, a memoir by journalist David Sheff about his son Nic’s battle with meth, it was as though I’d found a roadmap for my own family emergency. I read it, then immediately read his son Nic’s memoir, which chronicled the same events through his perspective.

I called my mom and told her to get both the books. Then, overwhelmed, I reached out to David on Facebook. “I have a random question for you, and I am sorry that I am a stranger asking you for advice,” I wrote, my need for help outweighing my deep embarrassment. I was concerned about the drug’s effect on my sister’s brain, and wondered if he could tell me about any specific medical tests she should undergo. “I just don’t have anyone else I can ask.”

I was reminded of my frantic Facebook message when I watched “Beautiful Boy,” the film adapted from David and Nic’s memoirs that marries their dueling narratives into one seamless story. It opens with a similar scene: David, played by Steve Carell, is seated in front of a doctor, desperately seeking answers to questions he is still learning to articulate.

“I guess I’m here because I just want to know all that I can, about all of it,” he says, a pained look on his face. The subtext is clear: If he could understand addiction, maybe he could save his beautiful boy, his son Nic, played by Timothée Chalamet.

I cried throughout “Beautiful Boy,” from start to finish. Not a few quiet tears, but heaving sobs, the kind usually reserved for private spaces, wholly inappropriate for movie theaters in the middle of the day. The plot of the film was achingly familiar: As a teenager about to go off to college, Nic becomes addicted to meth. He goes to rehab, he gets clean, and he relapses. The cycle repeats ad nauseam, more times than you feel you can bear.

“Watching 'Beautiful Boy,' every scene felt like a flicker of my own memories, the movie an eerie facsimile of a story my family lived. That’s the thing about addiction; it can be formulaic, boringly repetitive.”

When Nic is high, he does things that hurt himself and his family. He lies, steals from his family, and disappears for long stretches at a time, leaving them to wonder if he is dead or alive. Nic’s family struggles to understand his rapid descent from healthy, happy kid into addict. They have no answers, only questions. Living with the specter of death changes the hue of everyday life. An unexpected phone call bleats through his father’s house like an ambulance siren, signaling bad news.

Watching “Beautiful Boy,” every scene felt like a flicker of my own memories, the movie an eerie facsimile of a story my family lived. That’s the thing about addiction; it can be formulaic, boringly repetitive. So many people, whether they’re the ones dealing with addiction directly or the ones watching a family member do so, experience the same tumult of emotions: guilt, shame, anger, fear. There’s some comfort in recognizing that: After attending my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting, I remember how relieved I felt hearing everyone’s stories. Their struggles mirrored those of my sister (and of Nic). There wasn’t anything uniquely wrong with her, or with us. What feels unmanageable on an individual level is suddenly much easier to grasp when you realize others are going through the exact same thing.

“This is a disease that is accompanied by shame, and people who have this disease and their families often keep it hidden because they are ashamed and they feel guilty,” David told me in a phone interview this month. We spoke three years after I’d initially reached out to him, with his son Nic on the line. “We’ve already heard from people who are in the middle of this, the throes, that they watched the movie and it affirmed their experience.”

Nic and David were initially nervous about letting a director adapt their personal, and traumatic, stories. “When I wrote the book, it was painful. Sometimes I would write in the middle of the night to just get through the night, to sort out what was going on in my head,” David said. “The idea of someone else coming in and doing anything with it was really scary.” But in the 10 years since their memoirs came out, they said, a steady stream of readers have reached out to them like I did, craving connection with someone ― anyone. A film, they recognized, could reach more people in the same way.

“By sharing our stories, it gave other people permission to share their stories,” Nic told me. “We ended up having these incredible dialogues with people all across the country. It felt like making a movie of the two books together would be a way to inspire those conversations on a much bigger scale, and that was very exciting for us.”

In adapting the two memoirs, “Beautiful Boy” director and co-writer Felix Van Groeningen paints a realistic, nuanced understanding of addiction, leaving behind the typical Hollywood cliches to dispel myths about who uses drugs and why. The film is unflinching in its attention to Nic’s addiction. There are no other competing story lines, no breaks for the audience to catch its breath.

It is fatiguing, and completely realistic; addiction trumps everything else. At times, we see David at work, but those scenes are fuzzy and vague. His heart is elsewhere, worrying about keeping Nic alive. His younger children don’t get the attention they need. His marriage suffers under the stress. Just as Nic is isolated within his addiction, David becomes isolated dealing with it.

“I thought we were close,” he says to Nic in one scene, puzzled. “I thought we were closer than most fathers and sons.”

It is excruciating to watch David vacillate between hope and hopelessness. When he visits Nic at rehab, he is buoyant and optimistic. Later, we witness his inevitable emotional letdown when Nic relapses. After repeating the ritual over and over, David’s hope erodes into despair. At times, it flairs into anger. Nic’s addiction feels like a punch to the gut, a massive betrayal of their father-son bond. Why is Nic choosing drugs over his loving family, drugs over a meaningful career, drugs over everything?

Of course, as David learns more about addiction, he realizes it is not a choice. The drugs Nic is using are changing his brain. He is being driven by forces much stronger than self-will; it is a disease. Nic is equally confused about what is happening to him and ashamed that he can’t simply quit. When he’s on drugs, he makes bad decisions that makes him feel worse about himself. Then he needs more drugs to avoid dealing with the mess he’s made of his life. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Nic is fully conscious of the hurt he’s causing, which only makes him want to disconnect even more. When real life is unmanageable, drugs can seem like a reasonable alternative.

“I remember when I was using, I felt almost like my body was being hijacked,” Nic told me. “Even though I was doing all these horrible things, like stealing from my family, I also had this incredible amount of guilt and shame. I was aware I was doing these things I didn’t want to be doing and I couldn’t stop.”

In one poignant scene, Nic is clean and goes to visits his father, stepmother and two younger siblings. His sister and brother are giddy to see him, but also hurt by his long absence. He plays with them, tries to make it up to them, but he can see what his actions have caused. After he comes home later than expected from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, his worried father confronts him. Nic explains that he couldn’t alert his dad to his lateness because his phone died, but his father no longer believes him. He asks Nic to do a drug test on the spot. Nic passes it, but the interaction exposes the deep chasm in their relationship. David doesn’t trust Nic, and Nic can’t expect him to.

Nic spirals, relapses again.

One of the most powerful things the film does is counteract the assumption that people who abuse drugs are just out for a good time, without a care for others, David said. “Throughout the movie, you see that Nic is not having fun,” he said. “He is in pain, and he is trying to figure out his pain.”

The movie also doesn’t try to explain why Nic became addicted to drugs. There is no inciting event. “I tried it and I felt better than I ever had, so I kept doing it,” Nic explains in one scene. It’s not enough and everything at the same time. Most importantly, the movies steers clear of proselytizing about the right way to get clean.

“There is no answer when it comes to recovery,” Nic told me. “Addiction is really frustrating in that way. There’s not one way to get sober. Everyone has their own path they need to go on.”

“One of the most powerful things the film does is counteract the assumption that people who abuse drugs are just out for a good time, without a care for others, David said.”

The one element we see as being crucial to Nic’s recovery? Unconditional love. It’s an affecting statement, and one that I needed to hear when I was trying to help my sister get clean. I remember breaking down on the phone with a close friend at one point as I tried to get my sister into rehab, telling him I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t make her stop using. I couldn’t control what was happening. It was too painful to witness; my heart was shattering every time I looked at her.

He told me that I didn’t need to control anything, and I couldn’t even if I wanted to. The only thing I could do was love her, to be with her. My presence was enough. We got through that day, then another. I never let her go.

“Families do heal,” David said. “It takes time and commitment, and they can be stronger and better than ever.”

“Even after everything, that love is still there,” Nic added. “That’s the most important thing.”

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