Father, son & addiction

  • by David Lamble
  • Wednesday October 17, 2018
Share this Post:

I have burned out on attempts by Hollywood to deliver the truth behind drug and alcohol addiction stories. Even the best of them — Billy Wilder's 1944 "The Lost Weekend," with Ray Milland dragging his typewriter up Third Ave. to hock it for the price of a drink, or Otto Preminger directing Sinatra as 1955's "The Man with the Golden Arm" — come off as less than the whole story to this survivor of a household ruled by a mean drunk of a British father. The fall film season has two fresh boys-on-drugs dramas: "Ben is Back" (out in early December) and the subject of this review, "Beautiful Boy" (opens Friday).

The heart of this moving Bay Area-set drama is a determined dad's fight to save an addicted son who seemingly has strayed beyond all hope. As father David Sheff cries, "My son is out there somewhere, and I don't know what he's doing! I don't know how to help him!" Filmed in San Francisco and Marin, "Beautiful Boy" is based on dueling father and son memoirs by father David Sheff, and by son Nicolas Sheff.

The film depicts the painful journey taken by Nic Sheff (a gut-wrenching performance by Timothee Chalamet) and a dad worried to death (Steve Carell) as they struggle over Nic's dangerous drug habit. Early in the drama, Dad warns his increasingly hyper son that the road to kicking his multiple drug habits is rockier than he imagines.

David: "You think you have this under control, and I understand how scared you are."

Nic: "I understand why I do things, and it's not going to be any different. I'm attracted to craziness. You're just embarrassed because I was like this amazing thing, like your special creation or something, and you don't like who I am now!"

"Yeah, who are you, Nic?"

"This me, this is who I am!"

"Beautiful Boy" was a challenging story to tell on screen because it required the filmmakers to reflect the emotional and practical gulf between the Sheffs, and to devise a credible way to combine them, in a roller coaster of a tale where the pair are often at complete loggerheads. If you wonder why this highly topical drama took a decade to reach movie screens, consider that an earlier version was planned with veteran Rolling Stone magazine writer Cameron Crowe ("Almost Famous") at the helm and Mark Wahlberg in the cast, but creative differences arose.

The film's ultimate director, Felix van Groeningen, is best known to North American audiences for his powerful Belgium-set 2012 opposites-attract drama "The Broken Circle Breakdown." The director's intense, fragmented style has the effect here of rendering Bay Area landmarks like Haight Street and the Golden Gate Bridge slightly foreign.

Practically speaking, Chalamet has this year's Best Actor Oscar in the bag. He hits all the right notes for a kid who is headstrong, defiant and exasperating beyond belief. It takes a special kind of love to survive the burdens his addiction places on his dad. The story, as told here, is mostly a male tale, with Amy Ryan as the divorced mom kept mostly on the sidelines.

I highly recommend reading the Sheff memoirs: "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction" by father David (Mariner Books), and "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines" by son Nic (Antheneum).

Timothee Chalamet as Nic Sheff in director Felix van Groeningen's "Beautiful Boy." Photo: Amazon Studios