Relapse and Recovery: A Beautiful Boy Roundtable
Scene + Heard staffers Grace Lemon, Grace Gay and Noah Franklin sat down to discuss Beautiful Boy, a film about a teenage boy (Timothy Chalamet) and his father (Steve Carell) grappling with the boy’s addiction to crystal meth.
Noah Franklin: I think you should start with the background. What do you know? What can you tell the people?
Grace Gay: Okay, so Beautiful Boy is based off of two books. The first was published in 2007 by Nick Sheff—it’s Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines. And then the second book is by David Sheff, his father—he wrote Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through his Son’s Addiction. So the movie is a combination of the two novels being adapted into the same film.
NF: I did not know that going in. That is interesting because it’s hard to say who the main character is. I feel like the dad is the one who has the character arc and I guess it’s from his perspective.
Grace Lemon: But it’s not entirely from his perspective.
GG: The flaws that I saw in the movie were definitely because it is books being adapted, which is really hard to do. Because in a book you can make it long and weave it around, whereas a movie—it needs more plot structure.
GL: I was reading a lot of reviews and a lot of them said that the movie left out a lot of the more intense scenes of his addiction.
NF: I felt like I wanted more.
GL: It seemed like they wanted to make both of them likable.
NF: Yeah, you know how towards the end of the movie he’s giving that speech to the recovery group, and he’s talking about this deep void in his soul that’s he’s trying to fill but can’t—I was like “Oh...that hasn’t been present in the movie.”
GL: I know. It was upsetting how you got hints of his perspective and then you never really know why he got addicted.
NF: It always snaps in when he’s high, or just shooting up, or when he’s totally out of it, or you see him when he’s super happy, but you never see him, like, slipping into—
GG: You don’t get the middle.
GL: It was just back and forth between really good and really bad.
GG: Well, I feel like part of that is how it is with addicts: they will be perfect and then for some reason they’ve relapsed and...psychology is complicated. The problem I had more is if they had just explained how he first started doing this. Because I felt like at the very beginning they were in this isolated part of California. I didn’t know if they were trying to make some sort of statement about rural areas and addiction or something. It didn’t seem clear what they were trying to say for a lot of the movie.
NF: Yeah, that’s an interesting point. You never really see the environs of his addiction. You never see any other characters—except for that girl—who are using. You don’t know who he’s getting the drugs from.
GG: Yeah, he doesn’t have, like, friends in high school?
GG: Yeah, they mention friends but don’t like bring that in.
GL: The only youth scenes are scenes with his dad.
NF: You feel like there should be some external influence that makes him fall into this lifestyle, but that’s not present.
GG: What did you guys think of the scene where Steve Carrell just does cocaine? Like, what was that? That was the weirdest scene.
NF: That was a little weird, but I felt like the emotional logic was there.
GL: His desperation to understand.
GG: It was unclear to me whether this is something that has happened before, a systematic sort of addiction where his son has inherited this trait? I was just confused about that part.
NF: It didn’t strike me as a red flag that, “Oh he’s going to start following in his son’s footsteps,” but I thought it made sense to me, as like a “I just need to understand,” because the entire film he just...doesn’t.
GL: David Scheff’s motives were a lot more clear than Nick Sheff’s.
NF: Let’s talk about the acting, then, of the two main characters.
GG: I was really impressed with Steve Carell's job. I was thinking just of the way he acts in The Office and I’ve never really liked him as an actor but I thought he pulled off “Dad” real well. I was thinking, “Okay, yeah, if I was addicted to meth my dad might act like this.” His reactions are very Dad-like and I think he really rocks the salt and pepper.
GL: I thought the acting was really good for what the plot gave them. I think most of my problems are with the plot and what they chose to include.
NF: Yeah, I agree, and I feel like that’s sort of where the critical consensus was at. They did the best with the script they had.
GL: I started crying before they displayed the movie title. In the opening sequence I was crying.
GG: Yeah, I think same. Noah you can confirm that I was crying basically the whole time.
NF: Oh yeah, you were sobbing. But, so, what would have made the script better?
GL: I wanted a moment where I hated either one of them. You know what I mean?
GG: Yeah, I think it would have been helpful to people because he is being super damaging to his family and to himself and we should have had the opportunity to see that.
GL: Yeah I wouldn’t say it was problematically romanticizing but I wish it was more realistic, especially considering there were scenes in the book that they could’ve pulled.
NF: I think my favorite scene was the scene in that diner.
GG: Yeah, same.
NF: Where he is just a different person and he’s begging for money. That’s just heartbreaking and the dad just can’t get through to his son that he knows and loves. I don’t know...I think that prevailing theme or notion in the movie of the dad not knowing what to do—I think it’s an interesting ethical quandary: At what point do you stop trying? At what point is it self-destructive to be dragged down to the depths with this person who’s destroying themselves? How can you love this person if they’re unsavable, you know?
GG: Yeah, I thought that the theme that you just mentioned was my favorite part of the movie. Like, how do you deal when someone you love is beyond your help? And toward the end I think they especially started to get there, but I would have liked to see them get there sooner in that discussion.
GL: Like that scene on the mountain—I think was in the last 10 minutes of the movie—when he’s talking to his ex-wife.
NF: And that woman when he goes to that support group for loved ones.
NF: Yeah, and that woman is like, “I’m in mourning, but actually what I’ve come to understand is that I’ve been in mourning for years now.” That hit the nail on the head for me.
GG: I totally agree. For me, having seen people I love struggle with addiction, I was like, “That’s that feeling. Thank you.” That’s why I think I’m glad this movie exists for people to have the experience of addiction shown on screen, especially because it’s such a big problem now in America.
NF: Yeah, everyone is addicted to so many things. And I was happy with the end. I think they kind of nailed that sentiment, or ambiguity of it, at the end.
GL: Yeah, I did like how it didn’t end by just showing him happy.
NF: Dad’s just sitting there being present with his son and puts his arm around his back or whatever—it’s like he hasn’t left but he’s not totally there.
GG: I thought it was also a good ending because it was respectful to the fact that this is a real person’s story. The fact that Nic Sheff could still relapse, you know? Relapse is something that an addict is going to have to go through for their entire life, so I thought that it was nice to leave that open-ended and help people realize that addiction doesn’t end after you stop using.
NF: Oh, one other thing that I think is worth mentioning: his diary. I thought that was kind of corny. Maybe it’s accurate. But it’s just so on-the-nose.
GL: To me, that was them trying to put his emotions into a 30-second sequence. Which was annoying.
NF: That’s like a ‘show not tell’—show us him feeling this way. At least show us him writing this stuff.
GL: It was kind of like an “Oh shit, we’d better give some background. Here’s a diary of all his thoughts, ever.”
GG: Less montages of biking or driving and more of his emotions.
GL: Not just Steve Carell finding him, but what leads up to the finding.
GG: I also would have liked to have known: does he want to be found? It was very ambiguous.
GL: How does he keep finding him??
GG: Yeah, it was in a city. I can’t even find my friend in a room.
GL: In, like, University Library…Overall, it definitely was emotionally compelling.
GG: And I think that’s the most important thing.
GL: Yeah, that definitely is the most important thing.
NF: It was emotionally compelling, but I think, like we said, it was a little one-note, a little monotonous—I think it could have been more of a ride. More of an arc. Not a ride—that seems distasteful.
GG: It felt very cyclical.
GL: Yeah, it was cyclical. Which I think was kind of the point.
GG: It makes sense. Because there are cycles of addiction where you relapse, you recover, you relapse.
GL: It did make it very difficult to see the good scenes when you knew that following there was always going to be an even worse. So I think the cycle works...to a point. The cycle could have been condensed and placed into some background for the inclusion of more emotions.
GG: Also this movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. But most movies don’t, so…
NF: So if you guys had to give it a score out of 10, what would you give it?
GG: I’m gonna go 8.5 out of 10. Pretty high. I think it’s important for it to exist. That’s very much my thing. It needs to exist to help people understand addiction. And ultimately, I think it did it in a mostly constructive way. Which is hard for movies to do. A lot of movies about addiction either glorify it or demonize the person who is addicted, or are just not accurate. It kind of avoided those pitfalls.
GL: I feel like I’m a 7.7. That speaks to me. Might have been lower if I had read the books, I think.
NF: I think I give it a 7.4…Cool.
GL: Timothy Chalamet is hot—
GG: He’s not!
GL: I want that on record.