Beautiful Boy  
Directed by Felix van Groeningen   
Starring Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan    
Running time: 120 minutes

The recently released film Beautiful Boy, starring Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet, is a true story about a young man’s journey into crystal meth addiction.

The movie is based on the best-selling pair of memoirs from a freelance journalist father, David Sheff, and the addicted son, Nic Sheff. Nic gets hooked on crystal-methamphetamine and David tries desperately to help him.

It’s not a great viewing experience. It’s a slow film, doesn’t develop some of the characters very well and it’s difficult to connect and sympathise with the protagonist (unless of course you’ve also suffered with a serious drug addiction).

But the themes explored are relevant as revealed through text before the closing credits. The message is that: “drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50.”

This bit of text hit me harder than anything in the film, although maybe it was made more poignant precisely because I’d invested the previous 100 minutes to watching a visual representation of Nic’s decline into drug addiction.

Now from that statistic and from statistics I’ve seen out of Australia where I live, I’m guessing many people have a family member or a friend who uses drugs recreationally or prescriptively and perhaps more regularly for a time – everything from opioids to methamphetamines. But typically (at least from what I’ve seen) it’s something that comes and goes. Perhaps they use the drug for many years but they get by; they’re a “functional drug user”.

But there are those who experiment with some drugs like an opioid (fentanyl, heroine) or crystal-meth, that get so hooked they find it seemingly impossible to stop using.

It’s happened to a few people I know or have known. One guy I knew passed away a few years ago. He was raised by devoted parents, received a good education, was well liked, had a great job and then was offered an opioid by someone he loved and trusted and soon found it really, really difficult to stop. He did rehab and seemed to be on the mend but one night he was found unresponsive and soon after died (the exact cause of his death is still unknown).

For most of us it’s difficult to comprehend what it’s like to be mastered by something so physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually destructive.

But more pertinent to most of us is the question, “can we stop our beloved family members (especially children) and friends from falling into destructive habits?”

Outside of my work as a journalist over the last 10 to 15 years I’ve worked at various youth centres in Sydney and I’ve seen drug use and other forms of addiction impact well-meaning teenagers and young men who’ve recently left school. The parents or guardians have done most things right — but these people end up addicted to something which sometimes ruins their life.

Then there’s Australian Luke Davies who co-wrote the screenplay for this film.

Davies himself was a heroin addict for a decade. He has said previously that he was brought up by loving parents, with a sister and two brothers, in the middle-class North Shore area of Sydney and was educated at a decent school. He studied arts at the University of Sydney. His parents seemed to do everything right, as even Davies says, but he ended up as a drug addict by the time he was at university.

Of course this is all anecdotal evidence but watching Beautiful Boy and seeing that statistic about drug overdoses in America reminded me that when all is said and done, how little control parents and guardians have over the life-changing decisions young people make.

Can you run and hide with those you love to protect them from the ills of the world? Perhaps – that is if you live completely off the grid (no internet, no phone etc), and completely separated from civilisation. Then it might be possible to steer them clear of negative influences.

But I’ve also seen families that have done this to varying degrees. Some move to a rural community, home-school their kids and only hang out with families who share the same religious convictions. As soon as the kids get to make their own choices and live independently, they end up experimenting with something their parents disapprove of.

This all seems quite pessimistic but if there’s one thing I can point to and the film points to as well, is that the best chance anyone has of helping a person is by loving them unconditionally. How that’s lived out varies but this seems to be one of the main mechanisms used to help someone avoid or overcome addiction.

How much freedom do you give the children you love? It’s hard to say. It’s impossible to get the balance perfect between educating, disciplining and respecting a child’s freedom. But ultimately all you can really do is be there for them at their toughest moments, not to cast judgement but as someone they can rely on for help regardless of their situation. That’s the message sent by Beautiful Boy as well. In the closing scene, David and Nic hug each other at a rehab centre and in the credits it is revealed that Nic has been sober for eight years. Love triumphed – at least this time, not always, unhappily.

Sebastian James is a Sydney journalist.    

Sebastian James is a Sydney journalist.