Beautiful Boy

van Groeningen, Felix

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Brinker, Dustin
  • Date of entry: Nov-30-2020


David Sheff (Steve Carell) and Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) never had a stereotypical father-son relationship, one moment sharing a joint by a Volvo 240, another speaking Klingon in a small-town café in California. The fallout of divorce proceedings and long-distance shared custody seemed to solidify their relationship further; only Nic’s summer and holiday stays in LA with his mother could separate him from his journalist father–that is, until he starts experimenting with drugs. Beginning with marijuana and alcohol, Nic eventually finds himself using meth in his teens, his intellectual precocity feeding an existential need to escape. His substance use disorder, with meth at the forefront, takes hold of his life. Over the course of roughly five years, Nic fluctuates between relapse and sobriety, resulting in two failed attempts at college, multiple instances of theft and deceit, a car chase, and a hospital admission, supposedly at Bellevue Hospital. David Sheff is all the while present to varying degrees, supporting his son in his efforts at rehabilitation while being decimated by anxiety over his child’s well-being and multiple disappearances. His concern often undermines his other responsibilities, namely being fully present in the lives of his current wife, Karen, and his two young children, Jasper and Daisy. This tension reaches its climax when Nic’s mom calls David imploring for help in getting Nic treatment. David, having reached a breaking point, refuses, saying, “I don’t think you can save people” [01:42:33]. Soon thereafter, Nic graphically overdoses for the second time and miraculously survives. The film ends with David and Nic embracing in the courtyard of a rehab facility while the second movement of Górecki's Symphony no. 3 plays in the background. Before the credits, the audience learns that, at the time of the film’s final production, Nic had been sober for 8 years.  


Set in the seemingly protected world of upper-middle-class white suburbia, Beautiful Boy is heart-wrenching. Not only does the film detail a boy’s rapid decline into florid substance use disorder, but it also conveys his father’s contemporaneous emotional journey. The weight of the Sheffs’ lives bears down on the audience, tangibly evoking the constant, vice-like pressure placed upon a father and son’s relationship by Nic’s psychiatric condition.               

Juxtaposition acts as the film’s primary means of conveying emotional depth. Its frequent use of analepses allows one to understand David’s ambivalent views of his drug-addicted son, his “beautiful boy.” Additionally, the rapid cycling of Nic’s relapses is starkly contrasted with the brief temporal representations of his sobriety, times in which mere moments must have felt like eternities. Minutes simultaneously convey months of sobriety and hours of relapse, playing into theories of addiction as a disorder of temporality. 

It comes as no surprise that Chalamet was nominated for multiple supporting actor awards for his portrayal of Nic. There is an honesty to the character that reflects much of the psychological journey I interpreted from Nic’s memoir. Small actions carried this point home, such as Nic’s awkwardness when he lies to his father about using his car [00:32:33] or when he goofs around while moving into his mother’s place in LA [01:02:14]. This latter example impressed upon the audience Nic’s desire to please others, a facet of his personality that frequently resurfaces in his memoir. Chalamet’s performance speaks to the unpredictable reality faced by many with substance use disorder.

Although this film was well-conceived and powerfully executed, the complete omission of Nic Sheff’s experiences as a sex worker was disappointing. If the film had been solely based on the father’s recollection of events, then I would have been satisfied since it is unclear whether Nic ever disclosed this to anyone other than his therapists; however, Nic’s memoir is also listed as inspiration for the film, and he discusses this history at many points therein. This portion of Nic’s life, which occurred toward the beginning of his addiction, was a source of much trauma and abuse that more than likely propelled him further into mental illness and increasing substance use. Despite the common limitations placed upon films intended for a general audience, inclusion of this critical period of Nic’s life, even if only in dialogue, would have augmented the characterization of drug addiction and the film as a whole.

The intersection of all three components of this family’s story–Nic’s memoir, David’s memoir, and this film–provides unique and immersive insight into the nuances of Nic’s addiction. The film adaptation serves as the culmination of the father and son’s individual missions to share the tribulations of their lives and provide solidarity and community for those going through similar ordeals. Its message of recovery as an iterative, life-long process emphasizes the need for better support systems, both financial and medical, for these patients and their families.  


Awards: Independent by Nature Award (Aspen Film Festival 2018); Founder’s Award for Best Feature (Chicago International Film Festival 2018); Hollywood Supporting Actor of the Year Award [Timothée Chalamet] & Hollywood Breakthrough Director Award [Felix van Groeningen] (Hollywood Film Awards 2018); Best Male Supporting Actor [Timothée Chalamet] (San Diego Film Critics Society 2018); Spotlight Award [Timothée Chalamet] (Palm Springs International Film Festival 2019)




Amazon Studios

Running Time (in minutes)

120 minutes

Based on

Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through His Son’s Addiction and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines