What if you were trapped in the middle of a traditional addiction narrative forever?
In a traditional fictional addiction narrative, the addict begins the story able to coexist with the addiction, if indeed it even has emerged. The addiction deepens, loved ones discover it and there is a single lowest point. Then there is a surrender by the addict and a willingness to get help. Or, sometimes, there is not, or there is another fall and then there is death.
But the new film Beautiful Boy, based on the memoirs of journalist David Sheff and his son, Nic, follows a different path — almost a path without a path. What it is about, what it is concerned with, is not the way addiction is lived through, but the way addiction is lived beside, by the addict and by the family.
Steve Carell plays David, a loving father we meet as he searches for Nic, whose battles with drugs — crystal meth in particular — already have been an issue for some time. Nic, played with both charm and a maddening slipperiness by Timothée Chalamet, comes and goes from the house, terrifying his father and stepmother Karen (the reliably terrific Maura Tierney) and complicating their parenting of Nic's younger brother and sister. Director Felix Van Groeningen assembles the film in a way that recalls Jean-Marc Vallée's work on films such as Wild and TV projects such as Sharp Objects: Memory is nonlinear, so the story is too.
We see David's early, optimistic, research-driven efforts to treat Nic with a single visit to rehab. We glance Nic's periods of sobriety and the things that threatened them. We realize the strain on David and Karen's marriage that comes from the fact that Karen deals (and her kids deal) with much of the fallout from Nic's behavior, but Karen recognizes the primacy of Nic's mother (Amy Ryan), who is still very much present in his life. Karen's options are limited, and her pain is enormous.
Chalamet uses his particular brand of good-kid charisma very wisely in this film; for much of it, Nic is lovable but not likable. The intensity of his desire to be loved is obvious, but over and over again he manipulates his father by making promises he himself may even believe he intends to keep. And Carell, after taking on flashier roles in films such as Foxcatcher and Battle of the Sexes, here does well as a conflicted and devoted father who gives up large parts of his life to prevent his son's death. David never seems foolish for persevering with Nic, even when he beats himself up over his choices of strategy.
The scenes in which Nic asks for one more chance are wrenching. So often, an addiction story will make the plea facially fraudulent or the right answer too clear, but Beautiful Boy is honest about the fact that David has no good options; whatever he does could turn out to be a great regret.
There are times when, unfortunately, the filmmaking doesn't trust the good performances from Carell and Chalamet to carry the story. One on-the-nose music cue, in particular, skids right past moving to maudlin to kind of embarrassing, to the point where it injects a note of unintentional comedy. And Carell is better when he's controlled than when David is angry — although honestly, it might be that even his anger in dramatic scenes calls to mind his work as Michael Scott on The Office, who was so frequently impotently enraged to such great comedic effect.
Addiction has long been a topic that films and television could not look away from. But very often they attempt to build dramatic tension over the binary question of whether the addict will or will not be saved. Will there be a visit to rehab and then a moment of hope? Will there be a disaster? Such stories view loving an addict as a process of trying to help them push a rock up and over a hill, such that the recovery is complete.
While there may be true experiences that go that way, Beautiful Boy presents the question: What if someone's story just remains in the middle forever? What if committing to loving an addict doesn't mean committing to love them until it's over, however long it takes — but committing to love them even though it never will be entirely over? Not only in the "they will always be in recovery and they will always need support" sense, but in that a problem once "kicked" may yet again stand up and kick back?
Nic Sheff relapsed after he wrote about his addiction; after his father wrote about it; after they went on a book tour. There are ways to tell this story that would have been dishonest; ways that would have made it really seem unlikely by the end that such a thing could happen, or would have left the story such that a relapse would make it seem false. This film will make you believe Nic could relapse again (and again), but it will also make you believe that if David has to show up for Nic for another 30 years, he will.