When I first heard about “Beautiful Boy,” I had no idea what it was about, and I didn’t care much either. Steve Carell’s name was enough to get me in the theater. I never watched the trailer or the countless interviews in which Timothée Chalamet and Carell carefully explain the plot and meaning of this story. Needless to say, when I finally watched the movie, it hurt.
Based on David Sheff’s 2008 memoir of the same name, “Beautiful Boy” tells the story of Nic Sheff’s (Chalamet) struggle with drug addiction, and David Sheff’s (Carell) struggle to come to terms with his son’s addiction. The movie alternates between past and present, giving us glimpses of who Nic used to be and who he has become. Throughout the film, you find yourself falling in love with the cheerful spirit of young Nic and fervently hoping that adult Nic recovers. But unlike many other movies that tell stories of success, the purpose of “Beautiful Boy” is to demonstrate reality.
Emotions run high in this film. There are a number of moments when your heart breaks for both David and Nic. Chalamet does a fantastic job at expressing the rapid and wild changes in mood that accompany drug addiction, and Carell is captivating in his depiction of his character’s endeavor to remain sane while drowning in a sea of worry and desperation.
But as much as Chalamet and Carell succeed in portraying the lives of the real Nic and David Sheff, it was Maura Tierney’s portrayal of Nic’s stepmom, Karen, that connects with the audience the most. As the chaos unfolds, Karen is the supportive figure that Nic needs and that David relies on. She is, for the most part, the voice of reason in the family, perhaps even more so than Nic’s mom, Vicki (Amy Ryan). She is also the first to realize that they cannot do anything for Nic until he is willing to do something for himself. She remains a spectator for much of the film, allowing her husband to take the lead on how to deal with Nic. Karen’s outside perspective as a spectator allows the audience to resonate strongly with the character.
The most distressing scene in the movie is perhaps the one where Karen chases after Nic in her red mini-van after the family has caught him and his girlfriend breaking into their home. David chases after Nic on foot while Karen is looking after their two small children at home, but when she sees Nic fleeing in his car, she goes after him. Only a few scenes earlier, Karen had told David that there was no way to help Nic, so her chasing after him is completely out of character, yet understandable. As the scene continues, the immediate reaction is to wonder whether she will catch Nic and his girlfriend. But what if she does? What is she going to do? How is her catching them going to change anything? He will continue to use drugs, and he will leave again because he wants to. Karen seems to realize it too, because she stops chasing after them. When Karen breaks down, we break down with her because that’s when we realize that we will not leave “Beautiful Boy” with the sense of comfortable hope most movies deliver.
The entire film mirrors this one scene. The Sheff family chases after Nic, hoping that they can bring him back to sobriety, only to realize that there is nothing they can do if he is not willing to slow down. It’s almost frustrating every time he has a relapse, because you desperately want a happy ending. But “Beautiful Boy” does not provide a romanticized depiction of drug addiction or recovery — it is harsh in its storytelling. We never see a grown-up Nic fully sober. All we get is white letters on a black background repeating the theme of the film: there is no final victory over addiction — it is one day at a time. Yes, the real Nic Sheff has now been sober for eight years, but his struggle was even more arduous than what the film showed.
Despite the movie being far from the typical Hollywood survivor tropes, “Beautiful Boy” still leaves behind some positivity and a deep appreciation for all the love that can come from family. Even if it’s not the father-son relationship depicted in the film, or even if you’ve never experienced anything nearly as serious as drug addiction, you walk away with a new appreciation for all the small ways in which family members express their love for you. “Beautiful Boy” reminds us of how important it is to say “I love you” to the people around us.