One big reason that the zombie and vampire horror subgenres have persisted for so long is that they tap into a blinding, primal fear: a person you know and love might one day become something else, something unrecognizable, their heart and mind and soul colonized by some other force. In zombie movies, they become an undead shell with an appetite for brains and no ability to reason; in vampire tales, they’re transformed into a bloodthirsty demon with a seductive ability to trap others into their fate.
Beautiful Boy has little in common with zombie or vampire movies, stylistically. It’s a sensitive, harrowing family drama firmly rooted in reality, based on a pair of memoirs.
But it does channel the same visceral revulsion that powers a zombie or vampire movie, and it’s at least as horrifying. Beautiful Boy is the (true) tale of a father who finds himself increasingly helpless as his bright, charming young son transforms into an unrecognizable monster who steals from his younger siblings, lies, drags others into his drug addiction, and disappears, over and over again.
The scariest element of a zombie or vampire movie is whatever force has taken hold of a human and overpowered their humanity. In the case of Beautiful Boy, that force is a cornucopia of substances, but most primarily and dangerously meth.
There are few solutions for such a menace. Not many people come back from that brink. And Beautiful Boy doesn’t try to provide an easy answer — it simply asks us to sit alongside those who suffer and grieve.
Beautiful Boy is the story of a teenager who’s addicted to meth, and a father who’s trying to save him
In 2005, journalist David Sheff wrote an article entitled “My Addicted Son” for the New York Times magazine. Its subject was Sheff’s son Nic (called Nick in the article), who had fallen prey to an all-engrossing drug addiction as a teenager. Despite many stints in rehab, Nic had recovered and relapsed, recovered and relapsed, over and over, all while his parents (who split up when he was young) alternately watched helplessly and tried to intervene.
The story ended on a hopeful note, with Nic clean and in recovery. But Sheff later expanded the New York Times article into a memoir titled Beautiful Boy, published three years later, which revealed that Nic’s recovery didn’t last. When the memoir was published, Nic had relapsed again, returned to rehab, and was again in recovery; his own memoir about his experience throughout two years of addiction, Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, was published at the same time as his father’s.
Both books were best-sellers, and they form the basis for Beautiful Boy, starring Steve Carell as David Sheff and Timothée Chalamet as Nic. (Nic, whom the film’s end titles say has been sober for eight years, eventually wrote a second book about addiction and rehab; these days, he’s a co-producer and writer on the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.) The film is Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen’s first English-language work; he co-wrote the screenplay with Luke Davies (Lion).
Groeningen’s approach to the material is less emotionally heated than we might expect from a more typical Hollywood film about addiction; at times, it feels detached, almost dissociative. Beautiful Boy lives mostly in David’s reality as he watches Nic and tries to intervene, while also remembering his relationship with his son when he was younger, before drugs entered the picture.
The narrative jumps back and forth, feeling dreamlike at times, between David’s memories of an innocent, cheerful younger Nic and a volatile present Nic, in and out of rehab. When Nic was young, David and Nic’s mother Vicki (Amy Ryan) divorced; when he was in elementary school, David married Karen (Maura Tierney), and they eventually had two children, whom Nic loved.
Nic also loved to write and draw and play sports, but as he drew deeper into addiction, those things faded away for him, replaced only by the drive to acquire drugs or money to buy drugs. (While David Sheff’s memoirs detail how Nic’s addictions began — experimentation with pot in middle school — the movie doesn’t dwell on this part of the story.)
It gradually becomes clear that the meth has systematically destroyed not just Nic’s ability to concentrate but his personality and mental capacity, and David is desperate to figure out what he can do to save his son. The answer is not an easy one for him to accept.
Beautiful Boy is uneven in spots, but when it succeeds, it’s worth the effort
I’ve had a hard time deciding how to feel about Beautiful Boy. It is certainly a well-made film. Carell and Chalamet are unsurprisingly stellar, as are Ryan and Tierney. Chalamet gets a chance he hasn’t yet had to play a character who comes apart at the seams before our eyes, and he has plenty of range; he’s a warm, funny, goofy teenager but also a grenade that only needs a pin pulled to explode, all at once. It’s hard to imagine most actors of his generation pulling off the role of Nic as well as he does.
And the details in Beautiful Boy follow the same broad strokes as those outlined in both David and Nic Sheff’s memoirs, though some of them have been understandably smoothed out to make the cyclical addiction-recovery-addiction-recovery chain easier to track within the span of a two-hour movie.
In fact, the repetitive nature of that cycle — and the helplessness that it engenders in David, Karen, and Vicki as parents struggling to navigate a mountain of specialists and advice to figure out what to do — is the true subject of Beautiful Boy. The movie is less interested in the details of addiction and more in helping the audience feel trapped on the same treadmill of despair that David in particular does.
Groeningen’s visual sense feels influenced by European filmmaking, with images intercut with action and not much emphasis on exposition for the audience; that keeps the movie feeling fresh and unexpected, especially given its characters are played by familiar Hollywood stars.
But some aspects of Beautiful Boy also nudged my eyebrow up a few notches. A couple of musical cues — particularly the use of Fiddler on the Roof’s “Sunrise, Sunset” in one emotionally wrought montage — feel heavy-handed, as if we have to be told how to feel even after we’ve spent so long with these characters.
Most of the film is set in and around David’s idyllic home north of San Francisco, which appears to have been almost unrelentingly shot around the golden hour, meaning it’s suffused with a feeling of paradise that feels a little obviously metaphorical in contrast with the dank downtown corners where Nic keeps turning up.
Those moments wouldn’t be as out-of-place in the more self-consciously mawkish film that lurks around the corners of this material. And to his credit, Groeningen mostly stays at arm’s length from his characters’ mental and emotional states — but that’s why these moments feel confusing and unnecessary, a dose of jarring sentimentality when it’s not needed. What this family goes through is enough.
And what they experience is the horror of seeing a loved one taken over by an alien force that everyone, including Nic, seems helpless to fight against. Doctors can’t help him. Counselors can’t help him. He certainly can’t help himself, and his parents can’t either. Even when he gets clean and enters recovery, that force is snarling just out of frame, ready to snatch him up once again.
That’s why the toughest hurdle for a movie like Beautiful Boy is simply that you can’t really enjoy watching it. It is a horror film without the cathartic feeling of emotional release that comes along with most horror.
Instead, Beautiful Boy is a beautifully made and complex rendering of a father and son’s relationship that ends with too little hope to fit into people’s “inspirational movie” box. But at its best, it’s a strong rendering of both that horror and the frayed rays of hope that sometimes break through. It’s not easy to watch, but it is, in its own way, still beautiful.
Beautiful Boy opens in theaters on October 12.