By Mollie Campbell.
Movie review: Beautiful Boy
Directed by: Felix Van Groeningen
Starring: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet.
Duration: 120 mins
When I heard about this film I immediately loved the idea of Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet teaming up as a father/son duo, I knew both acting capabilities would result in something powerful. Although I did feel a tad reluctant to submerge myself within content that has been covered so many times before, whilst addiction is incredibly important and should be highlighted in every way possible, I was afraid that this might be another tale in which the protagonist is addicted but the director solely focuses on what got them there as opposed to fully immersing the audience into how the character is experiencing this situation in the present. Although I am very much invested in any film that focuses on addiction, something that has become such an impactful crisis in the United States and the rest of the world but I was hoping this would put a more realistic twist upon the scenario.
Director Felix Van Groeningen certainly provides this as the film progresses, probably due to the fact that this is a true story, and has an extensive use of the source material which include two books; ‘Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction’’ by David Sheff (the real-life father who is watching his son try to battle his addiction) and ‘Tweak’ By Nic Sheff (the ‘addict’). By using these materials so thoroughly and working with the real people, it certainly gave Groeningen the space to portray something as real and gritty as it could be, it has a focus on the present alluding to the message that it doesn’t always matter why a person got addicted to drugs but how they are going to get through it, a very important message which is ultimately what gives the movie its foundation. Due to the fictitious nature of a lot of addiction films there tends to be a lack of rawness and honesty, directors throw in plot devices to spice up the narrative, in this movie, the many awful situations Nic and his father find themselves in are the unpredictable plot devices of real life…a powerful story about a young man’s addiction to Meth and the recuperations of this upon the people around him.
As soon as the movie starts there are a lot of sounds around us, there is rarely a moment in which there is just silence, these are reserved for the more emotionally charged moments in which the characters experiences are so overwhelming, life-changing or dramatic that it is impossible to focus on anything else but the moment. The rest of the time there is a lot of background noise around us within the scenes making it feel real and present, almost as if we are right there in the room with them, forcing us to envision a world in which our own loved ones or even ourselves are living in this moment, which isn’t hard to do and also highlights the concept of addiction being present, the only way to combat it is not to focus on the why’s but the how’s, how are we going to fix the problem? It just is… something the film really highlights. Quite early on we see David looking in his son’s room, all of his things and posters are still there within the innocence of Nic’s childhood bedroom yet the bed is empty and the beautiful boy is now a tortured man, instantaneously representing the loss of childhood and the extent of the problems that come with this.
The scenes are very focused on nature, wind, trees, maybe signifying the passing of time, the past always being with us but at the moment we are within and surrounded by things that signify the present and we can never go back in time no matter how hard we try or how good it will be for us. It focuses on parental stress-the obligation you have to protect your child, a parent can never truly switch off the worry for their children and their whereabouts. As he continues to look around Nic’s room it becomes clear that even though they are tied by blood, he doesn’t really know a thing about the new persona his son has adopted. The emptiness signifies a normal feeling of empty nest syndrome for his eldest child and how the temptations that come with adulthood becomes too hard to resist as we leave the realm of childhood, but he will always be this beautiful boy/child to him as the parent.
There are longshots of childhood photos, slowly being zoomed in on, this happens a lot portraying the idea that parents almost expect their kids to stay as they were, or how they remember them when they were little, when they were entirely dependent on them. Maybe that is the problem… parents don’t see the need for their child to grow and transform despite it being a natural human requirement, therefore not allowing them to become themselves, thus always feeling disappointed if they act in a different way. The idea of journeys in all forms are touched on a lot, there is a lengthy pan shot of a wide open road and the noises around them on the father/son car ride we are watching. There is a focus on the back of Nic’s head when he is taken to rehab for the first time, as if he is the same boy the dad is constantly seeing/remembering/ longing for. The fact that the narrative is straight to the point and we see Nic enter rehab within first ten minutes of the movie is very beneficial, it saves us an often unnecessary build up and attempted justification as to why the character has an addiction.
What is interesting is the way they show the dad’s perspective: it’s almost as if he is living two separate lives, one being stuck in a moment or period/chapter in the child’s past, tied in with the reality of living this current life with an addicted son. This is a constant theme, there are constant bitty flashbacks interacting with the present content. The dialogue is honest and quite abrupt, or unguarded which is important, an open dialogue can save a lot of assumptions or lack of understanding, getting to the root of the problem. When Nic is in rehab for the second time after running away, he and his father talk about his Crystal Meth usage and the dad asks him: “Why? Why?” because this is constantly what we want to know, why?, how has this happened?, is it our fault?, my fault?, could we have stopped this? But he responds with: “I don’t know” which is often overlooked yet incredibly important, because addiction is often hard to pinpoint, some people have almost perfect lives but they still wound up addicted. And then he says “I’m really sorry about everything” reaffirming the idea that addicts truly do not want to be in the position they find themselves in, yes it was a choice, but one choice, not a life choice that it seems to end up being.
There is a very poignant surfing scene, a flashback to when Nic was younger. We see the dad falling behind the waves, as they grow larger he cannot see over the top of them, he loses Nic and can’t see him anywhere, only to find that he is too far ahead and he can’t catch up with him. Going further out into a sea he simply cannot navigate, he has no choice but to watch as his son leaves him behind. Nic is surfing a wave, he has to go through something his father cannot do anything about, this also signifies that you can only do so much for your children, eventually you have to let them go and allow them to live their own lives. Another highlight is after Nic goes to college and ends up at his new girlfriend’s family home for dinner, there is a gradual close up of Nic’s face as we watch him slowly become more withdrawn from the social situation as his body or mind adapts to a scenario without narcotics. He excuses himself and goes to the bathroom where the camera instantly focuses on a bottle of pills in the background, this is important because it highlights how out of control addiction can get over such a short space of time. Something that started with one small thing like pot in Nic’s case ends with anything to get him through the day. Just something to take the edge off, something to make him enjoy reality the way everyone else is, something to smile… but suddenly the drugs have taken away more smiles than it could ever force you to have in the first place. One minute he thinks one hit is ok but suddenly he’s stealing money off of his younger brother and sister, stooping to a level that he never dreamed he would, and normally never would have under any circumstance but the agonising one he finds himself in. Anyone can become an addict.
Eventually David looks through Nic’s notebook to find all of his poetry and drawings about using drugs and how it helps him, what goes through his mind when he’s high. It is a visual journey and the last page is one in which he documents his switch from meth to heroin. Then there is a significant gap with no pages written on until a random page full of delusional scribbles, this seems to be a metaphor for how drugs have the power to steal chunks of your life from you. But it is also very important to think about how the people around the addict feels, Nic’s story is told from the dad’s perspective, how addiction changed his life too, it’s not just his own life Nic is destroying. As the parent or helper, your life changes as the addicts life does, whether you want it to or not. It seems to be a constant journey you don’t want to be on. Suddenly you have become involved in the messed up things you have seen or have even previously judged yourself.
As I stated earlier, most important aspect of this film is not establishing why it happened, to some extent. It can’t just be an attempt to figure out why but how, it’s never as simple as that. As we near the end there is a built up anger and suspense within the music and close-up, when Nic discharged himself from a New York hospital after overdosing. The choice of song ‘Beautiful boy’ –Lennon is fitting, just before a scene in which David says to a young Nic ‘I love you more than everything’. If you were going to pick apart the history of the addict, including any possible reasons, maybe Nic having to split his life between two homes as a child provided an unwanted space to live in as a totally different person, floating around in an unstable no man’s land, eventually settling onto this space as opposed to your other destiny, to become someone you were never meant to be, or maybe not…that really is the point of the whole film. There could be reason, there might not be but the point is to forget that and focus on the now, and quitting…before it has taken your whole life from you.
As the narrative moves on, the characters get on with their lives, and it hurts. Nic returns to his father’s home after a year, the stuff in his room is gone, replaced with old gym equipment, it is now storage space…almost as if he doesn’t belong anywhere, or at least definitely not within the bubble of the life he once lived. When he leaves the camera focuses on the blurred mirror in the car as he drives away, happy on the outside, tormented on the inside, representing the blurred distinction between each reality that the drugs create, or a limbo between who you are and who you once were, it’s that space that is much harder to escape from.
The final few scenes really makes you think about the whole journey of addiction, someone at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting talks about the people you help with addiction by saying: ‘When you mourn the living and that’s a hard way to live’. They are mourning who Nic used to be and he is too, they are mourning the life they once had but now must let that go in order to help him in the best way that they can. In fact letting go is vital for him to find a safe space again, after the addiction has been battled, even if the battle is never truly over.
Timothée and Steve work very well together, another gripping contemporary drama under Chalamet’s belt and a refreshingly humourless role for Carell, which he plays excellently, somewhat unexpectedly. Its bitty and not chronological, mirroring that of a drug addicts life. There is no single formula for coping with and battling drug addiction, everybody’s path is different…but one thing is for certain and that is the lack of order in an addict’s life, how can there be order within the chaos? And this movie is an accurate commentary on all of the aspects of drug addiction, this story ended well, maybe it can influence another happy ending.