Beautiful Boy tells the story of a teenage drug addict, Nic Sheff, and his dad, David, who strains to figure out how he can help before realizing he can't. The subject matter is familiar to me. I spent age 13 to 16 stoned out of my mind on various drugs. My dad was a cocaine addict. As an adult, I became an alcoholic (currently sober for five years and change).
So when I see a movie like Beautiful Boy, which opens Friday, Oct. 26, I watch from two perspectives. I want to know if it's a good movie. And I want to know if feels real, accurate, true to the addictions that I've unfortunately lived and observed.
Sometimes it's hard to separate these two perspectives. I liked an alcoholism film from earlier this year, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, more than most other critics, largely because it nailed many small emotional truths about alcoholism and recovery. This impressed me. So does Beautiful Boy, which is based on memoirs by both David and Nic Sheff that ring with hard-earned experience from start to finish.
I was particularly struck by the film's no-nonsense explanation for why addicts get high. We get a medical description of how crystal meth goes to work on the brain, offered by a doctor played by Timothy Hutton. Then there's the more common-sense analysis, offered by Nic himself.
"When I tried it, I felt better than I ever had," says the teen, played with full commitment by Timothée Chalamet. "So I kept on doing it." Or this, from a meth head David talks to in a quest to figure out his son's disease: "You don't know how good it gets when it gets good."
When I talk to alcoholics in recovery, they usually offer some variation on the same idea: "I drank because it made me feel better." Until, of course, it didn't. I got stoned to mentally escape a hellish home life. Altering my mind simply felt better than my reality. As Nic tells his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor in the movie, "I don't want to live in the real world." You enter substance abuse with this outlook and before you know it, you're committing slow-motion suicide. (I'm grateful I never tried crystal meth. If I had, I might not be sitting here writing this).
But "I get drunk and high because it feels good" can be frustrating when you're seeking traditional character motivation in a movie. A viewer might reasonably ask: Why did this addict become an addict? The answer is rarely clear or easy, and it doesn't often lend itself to dramatic representation. Addiction strikes stockbrokers and homeless people, those with addiction running through the family and those whose parents drank like normal people. It's an equal-opportunity illness. It doesn't fit any preconceived notions of moral failure.
Which doesn't make it easier on anyone who loves an addict. This is the other thing that Beautiful Boy gets exactly right, the idea at the core of the movie: You don't have the power to get an addict clean. David Sheff, played by Steve Carell, learns this through typically excruciating steps and missteps. He comforts and he cajoles. He tries to make himself an expert on addiction. He gets angry when the treatment centers can't get it done. He wonders, over and over again: How can I help? The hard truth is that he can't, and if he keeps trying, he'll go crazy himself. Nobody can help get you sober until you're ready to get sober.
It might sound crass, but addiction can make for compelling drama, as can many things that, in reality, are unmitigated hell. Beautiful Boy understands this hell, and the way it burns anyone in its vicinity. That understanding makes it a better movie.