I remember exactly where I was — the Lake Falls Village shopping center parking lot in Mount Washington — when first hearing about the 2008 best-selling memoir “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” by David Sheff. I was listening to a public radio interview with Sheff, an author and journalist who is Jewish, about his son Nic’s methamphetamine addiction, and the story was so compelling I had to force myself to get out of my car to run whatever errand I needed to do.
My sense was that “Beautiful Boy” could have happened to any family I knew. The beautiful boy in Sheff’s memoir could have even been my own son, only 10 years old at the time.
A decade later, “Beautiful Boy” has been made into a feature film directed by Felix van Groeningen and starring Steve Carell as David Sheff and actor Timothee Chalamet as Nic. Gorgeously shot and brilliantly acted, “Beautiful Boy” does not disappoint. As Nic, Chalamet is magnetic — charismatic, intelligent, brooding, loving and desperate.
As his father, Carell masterfully depicts the mixed emotions — love, pain, guilt and anger — of a parent trying against all odds to save his son’s life. Van Groeningen uses a non-traditional structure for his film that’s very effective. The story bounces between past and present, showing the boy Nic once was and the relationship that existed between father and son before the addiction, juxtaposed with the addict Nic has become and his father’s efforts to bring back the boy he loves so deeply.
The film, which was nationally released in mid-October, is receiving high marks from critics. It was screened at The Charles Theatre on Nov. 1. Following the screening, viewers participated in a Q&A facilitated by Chris Kaltenbach, entertainment reporter for The Sun, with the real Nic Sheff, who traveled from Los Angeles to promote the film. Now 36 and approximately nine years sober, Sheff was friendly, warm and articulate.
Kaltenbach began by asking Sheff about his involvement with the making of the film and what it was like to see his story on the screen. Sheff said once he and his father got to know the director and actors, they “decided to step back and trust them to make the film. When we saw it, we found it really was authentic to our experiences. … The emotions were right and that was the most important thing. What I love about Tim’s performance is that when I was using, I was really hijacked by the drugs. I was doing things I never wanted to do … breaking into my parents’ house, stealing from my brother and sister. …There are two sides to an addict. There’s the person under the influence of the drugs and the person who’s underneath. That came through in his performance.”
One part of the film that was “Hollywood-ized,” he said, was the decision to have his father’s character buy and snort meth.
“My dad will say he used drugs in the 1970s, but he didn’t try meth like they show in the movie,” he said. “I think they were looking for a way to show how my dad was so consumed with what was going on with me, he did everything he could to understand addiction. He did research, he talked to doctors, but he never bought or tried drugs.”
In one scene, Nic steals $8 from his little half-brother. “Did you ever pay your brother back?” asked Kaltenbach. “Yes, I paid him back,” Sheff said. “The hardest thing about watching the movie was to watch the parts about my brother and sister. When [his brother] Jasper was born, I was 11. All I wanted was to be a good influence on him.”
Today, Sheff said his relationship with his half-siblings is “amazing. The love that exists in a family never really goes away. It takes time to rebuild the trust, though.”
Kaltenbach asked, “Does staying clean ever get easier?” to which Sheff responded, “Yes, it does, but it is a daily thing to stay clean. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so I’m on medication and work with a doctor. I’m active in 12-step programs. I know now that addiction is a disease of the brain. But it’s possible to live a really amazing life, even after going down so low.”
One audience member said he came to the screening with a group of recovering addicts from Baltimore’s Mountain Manor Treatment Centers. He asked Sheff ” what advice do you have for people like us?”
Sheff said there is no silver bullet, and recovery came gradually for him. “I kept relapsing on different drugs. There wasn’t a white light,” he said. “It was once I realized I could live a good life without drugs and knew that as long as I used drugs my life would never get better. There’s an annoying saying in [Alcoholics Anonymous]: “Don’t quit before the miracle happens.” So I just kept hanging on even though I didn’t believe in the miracle. Eventually, it just happened.”