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On the Road of Relapses: Beautiful Boy

Updated on November 17, 2018


The road to not using drugs for addicts isn't as easy as making the decision to go clean, especially when the drug used is crystal meth. The movie Beautiful Boy takes a look at several years of a relationship between a father and his son, and the efforts to get the son sober. Steve Carell stars as David Sheff, a freelance journalist seeking answers about crystal meth and its power of addiction for a piece he's preparing to write. His teenage son Nic (Timothee Chalamet), who has already been to rehab for his problems, has gone missing. David and his wife, Karen Barbour (Maura Tierney), have devoted a great deal of time and energy to this concern while raising two young children of their own. As one who has gone through rehab himself, David sees the signs of Nic's addiction. The teen lies about using and stealing money to get a fix. Eventually, he admits to using drugs and entering rehab.

The next few years would be filled with ups and downs regarding this situation. Nic would recover, go back to his usage, then try and get sober again. When David and Karen decide Nic can't live under their roof anymore, David gets a call from his ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan), who offers Nic a home with her in Los Angeles while he tries once again to quit. The change seems to do all of them good, as Nick gets off drugs for over a year, and holds a job counseling others looking to do the same. He has a supportive sponsor in Spencer (Andre Royo), and repairs his relationship with his father and his family. Following a visit to David and Karen, Nic feels depressed and tempted to use again. He drives to San Francisco and runs into an old acquaintance named Lauren (Kaitlyn Dever). They get high, but something happens to change Nic's life one more time.


Beautiful Boy gets its title from David Sheff's memoir about the struggles he faced with Nic, but the younger Sheff's book Tweak also serves as a basis for this film. Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen makes his English language debut here, and collaborates on the screenplay with Luke Davies, who received an Oscar nomination with his screen treatment of the 2016 film Lion. The movie is an honest account about crystal meth addiction, which David learns holds a greater grip on its users than heroin or cocaine. While I remained interested in the main story, I found the emotional impact more often presented itself when Karen and Vicki were on the screen and dealing with the relapses. I also found the story didn't really tell a story that would differ much from any other addict's efforts to avoid failing in their quest to stay away from drugs.

The four main actors turn in solid performances. Carell may have made his mark in comedy, but he has shown, beginning with Foxcatcher, that he can also handle drama well. David tells Dr. Brown (Timothy Hutton), whose advice he seeks, that he wants to learn everything he can about crystal meth and its effects. David throws as much money and effort as possible into caring for Nic, and shows the exhaustion of such an undertaking. Chalamet shows Nic as a a troubled addict who can sometimes break away from using, but finds that his mind takes him back to thoughts of getting high. Nic keeps a notebook, and it's often filled with dark thoughts and incoherent scribbles. In one scene, he does his entries in a cafe while face down on a cafe table. Tierney shows the strain of taking care of two addicts while trying to keep the Sheff/Barbour household in order. Ryan, as Vicki, also tries to lend support to Nic, even though she's no longer the primary caregiving parent.


Beautiful Boy is often as downbeat as it should be, and has made me think about an old friend and his son, the latter of whom had drug issues in an all-too-short life. This movie shows the constant ordeal faced by addicts and the people who love them the most, just as the one my friend and his son faced. No perpetually recovering addict or their loved ones would say they'd ever want to have a relapse. The reality is that crystal meth and other drugs can prove dominant over any sort of care of willful thinking. David and Nic Sheff live that reality, and it has given them many moments of despair. One can only hope that most of that despair stays behind them.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Beautiful Boy three stars. Looking at the truth about withdrawal.

Beautiful Boy trailer

© 2018 Pat Mills


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