It appears that the opioid crisis has finally reached far enough beyond fly-over country for Hollywood to notice it and feature it as the social problem of the moment. Two awards season hopefuls showcase not just drug addiction, but the kind of drug addiction that has been making headlines for almost a decade now. Both Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back focus on men in their early 20s who are opioid addicts and how their parents struggle to help them break free of the addiction.
I have no opinion yet on Ben is Back, because I haven’t seen it as of this writing (although the screener is sitting on my desk in the “to watch” pile) but looking at the cast and a brief plot synopsis, I’m willing to venture a guess that it shares the same problem Beautiful Boy has. While the picture achieves what it sets out to do, Beautiful Boy is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the easy way of exploring the devastating opioid epidemic.
It is not an examination of the drug companies or doctors in our healthcare industry. Both played a huge roll getting the crisis started in the late 1990s and early 2000s through their practice of over-prescribing opioids in the first place. You won’t see a patient go to the hospital for back surgery and then slowly spiral out of control when she becomes addicted to her pain pills. As far as class issues go, Beautiful Boy ignores the other side of this epidemic, too. It doesn’t focus on what is statistically the face of the methamphetamine crisis: poor and rural Americans who turn to drugs to escape crushing poverty and dwindling economic opportunities in once thriving manufacturing towns.
No, Beautiful Boy focuses on what Hollywood considers to be safe heroes worthy of our rooting interest: affluent, urban, and culturally sophisticated. It’s also easy because there are no messy reasons to probe for our protagonist’s descent into addiction. Calling on the rich history of weed-panic movies dating all the way back to the classic Reefer Madness, our hero walks through the gateway of marijuana (the movie even condemns his father for smoking pot with his son to celebrate the son getting into college), and from there it’s a short trip to shooting up heroin. No need to examine the structure of our society. Drug addicts are just drug addicts, period.
To be fair, Beautiful Boy is based on a true story. Two of them, actually. The screenplay, by Luke Davies with additional contributions from director Felix Van Groeningen, is based on two separate memoirs detailing a harrowing struggle to beat drug addiction. One, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, is by writer David Sheff. The other is by his son Nic Sheff, titled Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.
So, the movie covers true events experienced by people who have every right to tell their story. Still, the most invisible part of filmmaking – though less so since discussions about diversity and who gets the opportunity to tell their stories have become more prevalent in the last few years – is the process of picking which films to make. The fact that a major motion picture about opioid addiction (or the books it’s based on, for that matter) focus on an affluent freelance writer living in the San Francisco Bay area and his son, instead of an out-of-work coal miner, for instance, shouldn’t be surprising.
I wrote earlier that despite the movie’s main problem, it does achieve what it sets out to do. Beautiful Boy’s chronicling of addiction is absolutely harrowing. No matter how cushy the surroundings of someone caught in the vice of a serious drug problem might be, that doesn’t guarantee getting clean and sober will be easy or permanent. We all have our vices, and even if the film takes what I snarkily referred to as an easy way of probing addiction, it does an excellent job of presenting the hopeless spiral Nic finds himself in when confronting his problem. At one point David finds one of Nic’s journals and reads it. He becomes horrified as he sees his son losing the battle with drugs in the increasingly incoherent journal entries. The question “What’s one percocet,” written repeatedly as Nic tries to convince himself that he can control his meth habit, is devastating.
The main reason this portrait of meth addiction is so effective lies in Timothée Chalamet’s astoundingly rich performance. Chalamet proves in Beautiful Boy that his complex and moving performance in 2017’s Call Me by Your Name was no fluke. If asked to imagine a typical drug addict performance in a movie or TV show, most of us could probably conjure one immediately due to the huge number of them we’ve all seen. Dazed, dirty, constantly scratching or picking at their arms. Chalamet moves beyond all that. The delicate subtlety he employs as he moves from spaced-out rambling to violent anger to obsequiousness (as in one scene when he’s trying to get money out of his panicked father) is wondrous and frightening.
It pains me to make the comparison (because I’m a big fan), but Chalamet’s unbelievable talent draws attention to the shortcomings of the actor playing his father: Steve Carell. In making the transition from broad comedy to more serious roles (like in The Way, Way Back, Foxcatcher, and The Big Short) Carell is a victim of his own success. Every moment in which Carell yells or has a panicked outburst as David, a man who is intensely worried about his son, made me suppress a laugh. Although it was probably the farthest thing from Carell’s mind, the way he plays each of these moments reminded me of his hysterical, hilarious delivery in movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and TVs The Office. I was never quite able to buy into his performance in Beautiful Boy. On the contrary, there is never anything to buy with Chalamet’s performance, he simply exists as the character.
Despite the lack of believability from one of the leads, and subject material that hinders the movie from digging deep into the complicated reasons meth addiction has become so prevalent, Beautiful Boy does present a disturbing, effective snapshot of the power drugs have to destroy families. Van Groeningen’s direction is subtle and elegiac. His editor, Nico Leunen, mixes past and present in the story to give us a glimpse of happier times between David and Nic. These flashbacks are most effective when cut into moments showing David frantically searching for his son, who often goes missing during his worst drug binges. It’s a powerful film that carries an important message, even if that message doesn’t rise above standard Hollywood social problem film fare.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Beautiful Boy is a moving depiction of true events. It’s not as thematically complex as it might be, but Timothée Chalamet’s performance is pure powerhouse stuff.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- While I had problems with Carell’s performance, his character’s reaction to the situation is one of the most satisfying things about the movie. The father is written as very uncertain about the best way to help his son, which I would think would be most people’s reaction. He vacillates between unconditional love, tough love, anger, and worry.
- It’s odd to be excited about the soundtrack for a movie that is so somber, but the music selections in Beautiful Boy are outstanding. The use of a Sigur Ros track (one of my favorite bands) is stunning.
- The way Van Groeningen stages the dread of Nic possibly relapsing is incredibly effective.
- Nic’s compulsion to take drugs is something I found myself relating to in a very personal, if very different, way. I could probably be considered a food addict. Many is the time I’ve made myself physically miserable because I just couldn’t stop eating. Some might say it’s a poor comparison to make, but it’s really not. After all, drug addicts can effectively cut drugs out of their lives completely (although it takes a great deal of focus and determination). Food addicts can’t cut food out of our lives. We need it to live. You have to cultivate a healthy relationship with food instead of walking away from it completely. Unfortunately for me, that’s a hard thing to achieve.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- I encountered zero people while watching Beautiful Boy. I watched it on an awards consideration screener in the comfort of my home theater.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has produced some of the most unsettling cinema of the last decade. I haven’t had a chance to catch up with his films Dogtooth or Alps, but both The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer really gave me the freak-out. Lanthimos is going back in time for his latest movie, The Favourite. It’s a period piece set in the 18th century English royal court. It stars Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz.