Entirely powerless, yet entirely to blame

Clara Collingwood watches Beautiful Boy, the English-language feature debut from Felix Van Groeningen.

Felix Van Groegningen’s Beautiful Boy tempts you to search for blame, and blame would make for more comfortable viewing. It tells the story of a father’s experience of his son’s addiction. Neither father nor son are ideal victims. David Sheff (Steve Carell) shares a joint with his son after his high school graduation, and later on, attempting to better understand his son’s addiction, he snorts meth in his study and minces around to the kind of jazz favoured by the tweed-wearing, home-designing intellectual elite.

David’s son, Nick, played by the beautiful Timothée Chalamet, remains a beautiful boy throughout his addiction. Scenes that set out with the promise of ‘Trainspotting’-like depictions of drug use instead develop a soft-focused, low-threat mood. American teen rock crescendos as Nick slams meth alone in his college room, and Nivarna’s ‘Terratorial pissings’ sung by father and son on a roadtrip lingers over the scene in which Sheff searches for his older, relapsed son. The film slides between Woody Allen-esque long shots and psycho–thriller tension; one moment David and Nick are laughing over a salad, the next David is veering through the blue-lit vortex of a hospital corridor.

The many contradictions throughout this film have prompted criticism, even outrage. One Guardian reviewer wrote ‘mimicking the relapse recovery cycle of addiction, the film’s timeline moves in unsatisfying narrative circles that stall the already shallow stakes.’ Yet the interlocking, interruptive structure, emphasised by the reoccurring sound of crashing waves, amount to much more than a clunky metaphor. They imbue the film with a vertiginous, uncanny perspective, one that hints towards the destabilised and murky understanding many parents have of a hidden addiction, the threat of which is masked by a lifetime of counter experiences. The ‘stakes’ are not shallow, rather insidious. Nick’s cheeks sink just enough to worry those who love him, and David can afford to pay for residential treatment in rehabs that look like modern art galleries. These visual assurances, however, prove insubstantial.

The film is unsatisfying, as it should be. If it has an apex, it is a short phone conversation between parents, in which the many contradictions of the film culminate. David says ‘nothing we have done has helped him … I have failed him’, penetrating the central incongruity of the familial experience. It is a supremely unfair fact that those who love someone in the midst of addiction feel simultaneously entirely powerless, and entirely to blame. It is to be commended that the film has chosen to focus on this essential tension as well as the more commonly considered tension of addiction, between disease and choice.

Towards the end of the film David and his wife attend a peer-support group. There a mother tells the group that her daughter died of a crystal meth overdose that week. Perhaps a more worthy, more comfortable film would have focused on the story of a family less privileged, less lucky than the Sheffs. But the central tenet of the film is this: suffering is not relative, but it is relatable. This is the premise of peer support. Although there is currently no clear protocol for support provision for the UK’s 150,000 adults affected by another person’s drug use, peer support groups are widely considered to be one of the most effective services. The sister of a heroin user recently told me that the family experience is like ‘living in a parallel universe’; the points at which the film reveals the ephemeral, unmapped distance that addiction has carved between Nick and his family, his family and the real world, are the most insightful. A sex scene appears at first euphoric, and then, when viewed through the glass shower door, desperately sad. In the film's closing shot Nick and David sit next to each other in silence, stunned by the incongruity of a world in which Nick is alive and birdsong is carried across a summer breeze, whilst threat lies dormant in Nick, and beyond David’s reach. These moments don’t beg approval or disgust. At these moments Beautiful Boy brilliantly relates the family experience, at the heart of which lies the unsatisfactory, uncanny persistence of addiction, and of love.

Clara Collingwood is a Policy and Communications assistant at Adfam, the national charity supporting those affected by another person's substance misuse.

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