Friday, October 16, 2020

Beautiful Boy - A review, a reflection

It’s a film about the quiet decay — of the mind, the body and of the soul. It’s a film about the passage of time as well as of its stagnation. Based on the true stories of Nicolas Sheff & his father David Sheff, Beautiful Boy deals with the constant consequences of addiction — not just for the addicted but for those around him/her.

It’s a film about Nicolas as much as it is about David, Karen (Nic’s step mother) & their two kids (Jasper & Daisy) as well as Vicki (Nic’s mother). While we follow Nic’s journey, helpfully supplied with memories and tidbits from other times in the lives of these people (haphazardly placed with no age order being followed just like memories work in real life — any memory can pop up at any time), we are constantly reminded that it’s not just him that the drugs are slowly chipping away…Steve Carell as David Sheff shines in these moments of a parent trying to understand, even academically, and finally come to terms with his son’s choice of self destruction as does Maura Tierney as Karen who must witness not only Nic’s disintegration but also her family’s and make some hard choices.

So what is Beautiful Boy all about? Simply put it is a reminder that drug addiction is a lifelong struggle for both the patient and their loved ones. Nic is struggling but so are those around him — not just with his disease but also their perceived role in it or how they must deal with it on a day to day basis. Were they supportive? Can they always be supportive? Even should they be supportive? And at what cost?

It is also a reminder that many of these afflictions will never make sense. Nic has a loving family, he is talented and he is poised for big things yet he chooses a path of self destruction…why?

The film never goes into an in-depth analysis of the ‘why’…quite simply because it is not important. It is not important that Nic is talented, it is not important that Nic has support because none of this matters to Nic or to the drugs he constantly relapses onto. The addiction has taken a life of its own and the Nic living that life is so very different from the Nic of before that the latter is but a ghost…

This reminds me of a quote from the Indian epic Mahabharata where Duryodhana (the antagonist) states that he knows the differences between dharma (right) and adharma (wrong) and he knows that his choices are wrong but he can’t help but make them…Nic is sort of like that. He knows when he is wrong, he perhaps even knows when he is being manipulative but he can’t stop…just like the origin of his addiction, his relapses also don’t make sense to anyone including him. Timothée Chalamet does an excellent job at portraying that genuine confusion, self loathing and even anger at the outside world. His scenes with his step siblings specially stand out at the contrast they bring.

If there is one thing Beautiful Boy is not, then that is preachy. Never once during the film did I feel like I was being lectured about anything — from not doing drugs to being absolutely supportive of those who are marked by the addiction. The film allows those thoughts to enter the audience’s mind organically and then it allows them to turn those thoughts over and over again in their head and reach their own conclusions and perhaps even change them along the way. The film will not judge you just like it does not judge its characters, but it does not also shy away from showing their own judgment of themselves.

Having said that, the film also never celebrates drug abuse. Even though there are enough scenes of Nic using drugs, we are never taken into his world post the use. At those points, the film takes leave of his character as the eyes and he becomes the subject thereby never allowing the drugs to become anything but a disease.

The film is based on memoirs written by David Sheff (Beautiful Boy) and Nic Sheff (Tweak) and is a must watch for those who enjoy quiet reflective pieces of cinema about life and all that it comes with — the good, the bad and the ugly — with compelling performances by all and stunning musical choices.

Available in India on Amazon Prime.

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Direction — Felix Van Groeningen
Starring — Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan