According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 115 people in the United States die of an opioid overdose a day, approaching 50,000 fatalities in 2018. The addiction to and abuse of prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl is the deadliest epidemic in this nation’s history, eclipsing any other previously known health crisis. Drug abuse of both prescription and illicit drugs surpasses car crashes and gun violence as the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 55. Its death toll, as calculated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 2000, exceeds those of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq combined. The American Medical Association established addiction as a disease in 1987, and the spiking statistics in subsequent decades prove that no one is immune.
Based on the memoirs of David Sheff and Nic Sheff and directed by Felix Van Groeningen, Beautiful Boy focuses on the effects of all-encompassing addiction. The movie is a portrait of a privileged couple’s desperate efforts to save their son from his harrowing addiction to methamphetamine. The son, Nic, played by Timothée Chalamet, is beautiful, furious, fragile, and, at turns, hopeful and hopeless. His frantic father, David, is portrayed by Steve Carrell, who successfully brings a father’s visceral terror and frantic love to the screen.
Nic, who once enjoyed drawing, writing, reading, and surfing, now lives only for the next high; crystal meth changed his landscape “from black and white to Technicolor,” and he likes it that way. The narrative loops back and forth in time, reflecting the rollercoaster-like ride of this family’s existence. But these digressions and flashbacks quickly become all-too-familiar: a drug crisis, an attempt at sobriety, and, usually, a relapse. The inexorable nature of this pattern finally forces David to recognize that only Nic can save himself. When David realizes that Nic is going to have to pull himself out of his own abyss, the surrender must be absolute.
But the filmmakers know that, for most parents, walking away is nothing short of impossible. Watching David’s attempts to separate the son he loves from his destructive behavior—and himself from the role of father/savior—makes the movie wrenching, powerful, but also frustrating and repetitive. The cycle of rehab-relapse-rinse-and-repeat does not change, and the audience knows that even a triumphal ending is really not an ending, but another chapter in a lifelong battle. When the gaunt and haunted Nic says “sorry” repeatedly, the audience knows he is not truly apologizing but strategizing. Nic is an expert in lying and emotional manipulation. He allows glimmers of his former smart, charming self to shine through, but only in order to manipulate his father, who veers from guarded optimism to exasperation, and then from rage into despair. As I watched the movie, I shared David’s sentiments.
The gorgeous California vistas in various backgrounds sail by in almost music-video slickness, which felt like a huge disconnect from the subject matter—but maybe that was a point, too. Addiction can be covered up with surfaces for a while, but at a certain point, for anyone connected to this disease, it inevitably turns deep and dark. Recovery is not linear, and there are no guarantees. According to the American Addiction Center, the success rate of the Alcoholics Anonymous program is an instructive metric: only one in every 15 people who enter the program becomes and stays sober. These odds are even steeper with methamphetamines.
As the opioid crisis takes over the country, police body cameras and passersby with cell phones are documenting the cataclysm. The internet is now filled with uncensored and hard-to-watch yet also mesmerizing clips of drug users passed out with needles in their arms, collapsed on sidewalks and in supermarket aisles, often with bewildered children screaming and crying, begging for their parents to wake up. This is not a Hollywood movie; this is a reality. As The New York Times recently observed in their photo essay, “How Do You Recover After Millions Have Watched You Overdose?” (December 11, 2018), these images splashed across the news and social media have created “a new genre of American horror film: the overdose video.”
Beautiful Boy is an inspirational story with a “happy” ending, but everyone who walks out of that movie or has been touched in any way by this disease knows that there is no ending to an addiction story. In real life, Nic and David now travel the country telling others about their experience with drugs and recovery. Their story, as told in Beautiful Boy, conveys dual cautions: no one is above the illness, and no one is given a free pass. Both threats still loom over Nic every day. It’s smart to pay attention to that message.