I have been trying to write this essay since I first watched Beautiful Boy back in October. Truth be told, this film seems to follow me everywhere. In the fall, I drove for two hours to attend a Q&A for which I didn’t have tickets. It was a leap of faith, to say the least. I stumbled up to the attendant behind the largely intimidating movie theater desk. “Um, do you have any tickets for the 4:15 Beautiful Boy showing?” I held my breath and my purse- ready for a quick and embarrassing exit and the long drive home. Her smile evolved into a disappointing frown. “We only have two left,” the young woman answered. My heartbeat was unnaturally fast, and I paid the $11 in cash, lest anyone scoop up the tickets before I could get my debit card loose. I was too sick to eat popcorn or even drink water. I rested my head against the leather seat and closed my eyes to numb the throbbing pain of riotous emotions- from setting nine alarms to call the theater each hour in the case of ticket cancellations (a process of routine rejection) to experiencing the utmost high of front row seats. I opened my eyes and the theater was buzzing- alive with youth and excitement, moviegoers with signed books clutched to their chests. I sat my notebook in my lap with the single pathetic question a sixteen year old girl with a migraine and front row seats had managed to scribble for Nic Sheff: How do you make it as a writer in a world where everybody writes? And what does it mean to be vulnerable publically? What is gained and what is lost? I sat next to a woman who drove in from three hours away, and my self-pity vanished. After the screening, I was introduced to Nic Sheff- both fictional and real, and Timotheeé Chalamet, the actor who portrays him. I didn’t ask my question. It was a beautiful night.
A month after watching it, I had the opportunity to hear Sampha perform Treasure from the movie’s soundtrack live in Los Angeles, under better circumstances.
I am profoundly unqualified to write about a film in which the main character struggles with methamphetamine addiction. This is not a review or summary, but rather a collection of thoughts. I felt that a great deal of honesty and vulnerability went into the making of this film, and it deserves something beautiful to come out of it; I hope this writing can be a piece of that beauty.
I have been entranced in a Felix van Groeningen-induced aspirational thought of a Beautiful Boy in a world where boys could be beautiful and nothing else. And addiction would be rare, temporary- challenging though not overcoming. What I admired about this film is that it was never about why Nic was addicted. There is no sense in stressing over what caused it, what could have prevented it, simply the fact that is was, and it happened. In all actuality, addiction does not discriminate. It knows no class, race, or gender. The humanizing piece of this film is that it circles in on one experience and one boy. Rather than considering addiction as something that impacts thousands of people each year, we can sensitize this epidemic by noting that this is something Nic went through. Nic and David Sheff and their family are much more comprehensible than the haunting statistics.
It’s anti-glorifying as films of this genre should be. It brings to light everyday struggles we may not otherwise consider. Little battles being fought right under our noses, in our schools, our cities, our country- for the sake of grandeur. The unromanticized injections to the highest of highs and lowest of lows are never truly satisfying or relevant to the film’s spreading of accuracy rather than a plea for sympathy.
There is nothing prove. Director Felix van Groeningen makes that clear from the beginning. When Nic says to his dad, “This is me; this is who I am,” he is not asking the audience to understand, but rather be aware. Aware that overdose is the most common killer. Aware that Nic was just a boy, with a bright future and good people around him.
Love is a chase, a desperate pursuit at best. It is true that as we weep for ourselves, there is someone also weeping for us. When Maura Tierney’s version of Karen- Nic’s stepmom- literally and emotionally chases her son- or at least the boy he used to be, the boy she knows is still inside of him- in a van as he drives away from wellness and his family, she is crying, but she is still trying.
Our lives belong equally to us as they do the ones we love. Our suffering is never simply ours to bear, and our pain is rarely ever experienced single-handedly. I wish I could be more for you, Nic thinks. “I want them to be proud of me,” he says during his time at a rehabilitation center. Is this not but the human response to genuine, impassioned relationships?
To love is to be loved. And be that on the smallest of scales, and the most minimal of extents- be that by many or few, in times of our greatest transgressions or happiest days- we are all just lucky to be loved.
If it doesn’t make you wiser, and it doesn’t make you stronger, and it doesn’t make you live a little bit, then what are you doing?, sing Zola Jesus and Johnny Jewel in their song Wiseblood which is also featured in the movie, which suggests that accountability is vital to progress. Even at the end of the film, Nic struggles to find himself. “Whatever you have lost, you will find it again,” Steve Carell’s version of David reassures.
One cannot feel better unless they desire to feel better. It is this truth David must ultimately come to terms with in order to allow Nic to feel better in his own time and find his way back to both his loved ones and himself.
When does it end? Well, it doesn’t really end. There is no formula for success, no timeline for recovery.
When does it get better? Does it ever get better? You would have to ask Nic, or the thousand other Nics across the country for a better answer. All I can offer is Eventually, I suppose. Eventually.