Kudos to director Felix Van Groeningen for managing to fuse two different memoirs about the same topic into a movie that doesn’t become a mine field of conflicting points-of-view. The true story of Nic Sheff’s decade-plus battle with drug addiction was the subject of two books, Sheff’s own and another written by his father, David Sheff, a veteran journalist. Both were published in 2008 and recall events that started in the early 1990s. It’s both chronologically apt and a bit worrying that Nirvana plays such a prominent role in the beginning of the movie.
The narrative moves back-and-forth through time in an attempt to figure out not only how a kid (Timothee Chalamet) from such a privileged and liberal-minded family could end up a slave to pills and meth but why his father’s (Steve Carell) equally liberal-minded approach to the problem—he prefers to see the “enemy” as the addiction and not his son—never really worked. In that regard, Van Groeningen perhaps places too much emphasis on the milieu. David lives in a rambling designer home situated in idyllic, wooded isolation in Northern California with his second wife, Karen (Maura Tierney), who effectively raised Nic since they married when he was about 10. Nic is still in touch with his more standoffish birth mother (Amy Ryan), who also lives in upper middle class comfort in Los Angeles. Van Groeiningen’s point is that Nic became an addict despite his surroundings, an unnecessary implication since it is almost always the case that it is an addict’s personality that’s the problem rather than his surroundings or his upbringing exclusively; except, of course, that privilege has its emotional traps as well.
Still, it’s mainly David’s movie, and while scenes that address Nic in a more deliberate manner are plentiful, they are more or less illustrative of the kind of spiraling-down behavior we’ve become accustomed to in movies about addiction—the constant lying to loved ones, the casual criminality, the multiple failed attempts at rehabilitation. But then again, David’s scenes are mostly reactive. With each failure of his son to kick his habit and, thus, his own failure to come up with a plan that works, he sinks deeper into his own depression and instability. Though he tries not to fall back on “platitudes,” as he calls them, David cannot help but reach for every possible remedy, regardless of how suspicious he was of them earlier. At one point, he even buys some meth himself and tries it in an attempt at empathy that goes nowhere.
Though I haven’t read either book, it’s easy to get the feeling that both are open-ended essays on their authors’ respective experiences and what those experiences taught them. As such, the action in the movie doesn’t always feel consistent, as if Van Groeningen needed to create situations in order to provide the viewer with a comprehensible narrative, and that may explain why the movie never reaches a satisfying conclusion. By all rights, it shouldn’t, because that’s how life works, but the arc of the drama here creates certain expectations. The habits of conventional moviemaking are sometimes as difficult to kick as opium.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).
Beautiful Boy home page in Japanese.
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Nice review. It’s a very well-acted film.