Directed by Felix Van Groeningen
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carell, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan
Running time: 2 hours
MPAA rating: R
by Jaime Davis, The Fixer
Special k. Mescaline. E. It wasn’t a real party unless we got our hands on one of these. Sure we had something nasty and vaguely alcoholic in our water bottles - something sugary and offensive to our bellies but easy on our wallets, but it wasn’t what we were after. On this particular night with this particular group, we weren’t headed to our usual club in “family friendly” Ocean City, Maryland. After dark, we knew this town better than all the vacationers with their family wagons and sunscreen and plastered smiles. On this particular night with this particular group, about 30 minutes north of Ocean City at a party on a public beach in Delaware, we’d all just bought meth.
No one could find anyone with special k, or ketamine, which was typically my drug of choice in those days. Ecstasy or MDMA or Molly or whatever - this was the late 90’s and we just called it E - also wasn’t to be found. My favorite of all drugs I’d tried up to this point was mescaline, a type of hallucinogenic sibling to acid, which gave me some of the most joyous, vibrant trips ever experienced. It was hard to find in those days so no one had that on them either. There was some weed but it chilled us out a little too much. Opium was floating around but that only made my mind blaze with near-crazed pyramids of complex thought until I fell into a sleep so deep I thought my body might quit. Someone offered us cocaine but I knew my limits - I avoided it like I avoided heroin because I knew if I didn’t I’d be gone. Would fall down the dark hole inside myself and have very little inner means to dig my way out. I’m not proud admitting this out loud, but I’d never felt so complete, so more like the “me” I wanted to be, or could be, as I was in those days when I was on special k or mescaline.
And that’s how the Beautiful Boy, Nic, of Beautiful Boy feels about his love affair with methamphetamines. There’s a hole inside he’s trying to fill, with meth, and alcohol, and pills, and whatever else he can get his hands on. He feels more like the “Nic” he wants to be high than when he’s not. And he knows if he keeps filling this hole with shit he’s going to eventually die much, much sooner than he should. My affair with meth lasted precisely 60 hours - after finally, mercifully coming down I was able to sleep. The last twelve hours were the worst - I wanted sleep so bad, wanted to escape the hyper reality ride meth created for me. While real life Nic has now been sober for eight years, his relationship with meth, whether using or not, will be with him for life.
Beautiful Boy the film is based on Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, a memoir by Nic’s father David, along with Nic’s own memoir, Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines. Nic, like me, was a product of divorce - shuttled between families and locales in summers, living with one parent’s new family, never really settling into a family of his own. We also both came of age in the 90’s, a time when, in my recollection, everyone was obsessed with the free love movement from thirty years prior, taking style cues from the late 60’s and 70’s and warping them into some kind of minimalist hippie hybrid. But the 90’s were not free. Or necessarily kind. I remember homophobia running rampant. The words “faggot” and “retarded” rolled off tongues with ease and confidence. Labels were key. People wanted people to fit into easily defined boxes: jock, arty, gay, tweaker. It was ok to be weird as long as you weren’t too weird and had a group of fellow not-too-weird friends. What I’m trying to say is - shit was not cool. And if you take a look around, at your local Urban Outfitters, at your favorite non-Starbucks coffee shop, in movies and tv shows - the 90’s are definitively having a moment now. People think the 90’s are very fucking cool. I just saw Mid90s the other night so I think I should stop here and hold the rest for that review. Simply put, one could argue that a byproduct of the faux free love nonsense wrought in the late 90’s led some, in part, to addiction; more specifically in this case, could’ve been a contributing factor to Nic’s addiction.
There’s a truly frightening statistic floating around about drug addiction - overdoses are the number one killer of people under 50 here in the United States. That’s about 175 people dead each and every day. And for many of those 175, they leave behind family members who think they were above something like addiction. That something as sinister and despicable and ugly and black and diseased could never affect them. But boy does it. In Beautiful Boy, young Nic (Timothée Chalamet), among other things, steals from his siblings (both barely out of high chairs), flees rehab multiple times, nearly OD’s in a café bathroom stall, lifts pills from his first girlfriend’s mother, breaks into his father’s home, and leaves another girlfriend post-overdose after resuscitating her and sending her alone to the emergency room. What the film (and its source material) is really all about is how all of this affects the people around Nic. Because yes, you guys, this can happen to anyone, including an affluent white family living the relatively good life in California.
Nic’s father, David (Steve Carell), a freelance writer who has contributed to the NY Times, Rolling Stone, NPR’s All Things Considered, Playboy, Wired, and Fortune, lives in a beautiful home just north of San Francisco, a city fraught with economic extremes. His wife, Karen, is a successful painter and illustrator whose work has been shown in countless galleries and is a successful children’s author. Nic’s mother, Vicki, is a prominent journalist who lives in hedonistic Los Angeles. Surely addiction couldn’t touch such a golden family? But that is what’s at the heart of both Beautiful Boy book and movie - to spread awareness and create a conversation. To remove the taboos surrounding drug use and addiction so that more and more families will speak up and talk about these issues. Because no one is immune.
Much of the film also deals with David’s investigation into what his son is going through, to hopefully get to the root of the issue so that he can fix Nic. But as many of us know, we can’t fix anyone. Folks gotta do that work themselves. Much of David’s journey involves letting go - coming to terms with the painful realization he can’t always bail out his kid, can’t keep him alive. All he can do is practice the three C’s (I didn’t cause it, I can’t cure it, I can’t control it) and focus on the rest of his family to the best of his ability. While on this roller-coaster ride with David, however, I couldn’t help but be completely knocked out by Timothée Chalamet’s performance (my friends and I now call him by the simple moniker of “Charlemagne” for some reason). There’s a scene one-third of the way in where Charlemagne is alone, high off his ass at college that 1.) I couldn’t believe he wasn’t really high off his ass and 2.) was completely jealous because I remembered being that high off my ass and was kinda sorta jealous for a moment that I wasn’t that high off my ass. I expect at least some noms this season for him - his acting abilities are nothing short of frightening. Carell’s turn is extremely human as is Maura Tierney’s performance - there’s a scene where, as step-mom Karen, she takes off after a relapsed Nic, in a fit of love and devotion not only to Nic, but to her husband and Nic’s siblings - the family they created together. As someone who was raised by a step-mom, this scene seriously hit the “cry Jaime, cry” button within me. Weepy mess. The soundtrack is equally moving - you’ve got some 90’s staples from Massive Attack and Nirvana coupled with Bowie and Neil Young classics. But it was the scenes featuring Mogwai and Sigur Rós that affected me the most.
Beautiful Boy is not a film for the faint of heart. As mentioned, you are on a ride with Nic and company as they go through it all. Every painful relapse. Every sickening upswing when you know more shit is coming. While this particular story has a happier ending, we know countless others have not been so lucky. And we know that every single day Nic is out there somewhere, every single day working on his sobriety. And we know it doesn’t ever leave you - it’s a daily battle. I’m thankful he’s still here to share his story with us.