The Beautiful and the Broken

By Tim Winterstein

I pretty much knew what I was going to get when I turned on Beautiful Boy. I didn’t know if it would be good as a film or not (although I was looking forward to seeing Steve Carell in a serious role—though sometimes I had trouble not letting his The Office persona bleed into his role here, particularly when he’s angry). I think, generally speaking, films about addiction have focused on either the addict’s point of view or the mother’s. I don’t know if I can think of another one where the father is at the center of the story.

I still haven’t decided whether I think it’s good as a movie. At times, I was afraid it was tending in either a hackneyed or melodramatic direction. But the subject of the film is emotionally overwhelming, so I’m not sure I care whether it’s on any top-ten lists—though I will say that Timothée Chalamet’s Golden Globe-nominated performance makes all the other (very fine) actors nearly pale in comparison.

Perhaps it’s watching this as a parent, but the back and forth between Nic as a young child and the present day is a fearful thing. No loving parent with young children can help but tremble at the thought that a child may grow up to be something quite different from one’s hopes or wishes or dreams. You watch a child as a child without having any idea about their future. You do what you can and let go (or your grip is forced open), and children will be what they will be.

It’s a particularly potent illustration of the fact that Proverbs 22:6 is not a promise but wisdom about what will generally happen, all else being equal. Whether or not David Sheff raised up Nic “in the way he should go” is not within the sphere of my judgment. The point remains: you can do everything “right,” and children might later reject it all.

And the unknown is often haunting the periphery of the narrative. Why do some people escape death from addiction, particularly from meth, considering that one person whom David consults says that the success rate of sobriety is in the single digits? While one tearful mother tells the story of her daughter’s death, Nic is overdosing. What rhyme or reason is there as to why some survive and some die?

And who knows why some are particularly prone to addiction in the first place? Nic says in the film (I haven’t read either of the memoirs on which the movie is based) that as soon as he first took drugs, he enjoyed them, no matter what they were. He was hooked, it seems, from the first dose or hit. But the film can’t answer those questions because, at least from our perspective, there are no answers. And any offered answer rings hollow in light of the suffering and hopelessness of addiction.

Though I don’t have personal or family experience of addiction, the helplessness of everyone rings true. What can David do that will actually help? He never hesitates to drive or fly to wherever Nic might be, and that creates a significant moment between David and Karen, his second wife and Nic’s step-mother. Karen asks how his going is going to help, and his frustration and pain overflow. He will do anything or everything, but there seems to be no escaping the spiral of addiction.

Beautiful Boy highlights the complexity of addiction as well as the difficulty in trying to help those who are caught in it. It has a hopeful ending, but notes both the daily struggle of addicts as well as statistics on addiction in America. People seem to be talking more and more about addiction, especially to opioids, as a “crisis.” The question remains whether we have the resources to combat that crisis.