Thursday, January 24, 2019

Beautiful Boy – one family’s story about parenting and substance abuse

Parenting trap number 1 has got to be the desire to ‘fix’ your children. It starts innocently enough whether they fall over in a playground, graze a knee. Or maybe when they take a swipe at another toddler in a playgroup who has grabbed a brightly-coloured plastic object from their hand.

In the first instance you quickly eliminate the notion of wrapping them in a huge cotton wool cocoon and decide to stay within reach to scoop them up like a superhero before gravity brings them tumbling to the ground the next time. In the second you try and build up their resilience while teaching them to be assertive while falling into the trap of listing the obvious deficits in the other’s child’s character and its parents. It’s the beginning of helicopter parenting, the bane of school and college teachers’ lives!

There comes a point when you realise that not every bloodied knee can be prevented, and bad stuff happens in the world at age two and twenty-two. Part of parenting is to know when to let go, even though you dearly want to interfere or revert to ‘fix’ mode.

Beautiful Boy dramatizes the real-life story of David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff as told in their pair of memoires, Beautiful Boy and Tweak. When things go wrong, can and should David ever stop trying to ‘fix’ Nic?

The teenager seems happy in his isolated world of poetry and novels. But when he fails to come home for two nights, his father realises that all is not well and checks his son into an addition clinic. Relapse follows rehab as Nic jumps onto the helter skelter than only spirals downwards, while his journalist father, artist step-mother and remote birth mother try to figure what to do with the child who is addicted to crystal meth.

Beautiful Boy is a valid and relatable story, but it’s just one story of many, and perhaps the one that will appeal most to Amazon Studios’ ‘Prime’ demographic. It feels like little is achieved by dramatising several years of Nic Sheff’s life that couldn’t have been as candidly portrayed in a documentary.

In the same way Trainspotting is a story of working class drug use, Beautiful Boy is a tale of substance abuse in a white family of privilege. Money is rarely an object, neither for the parents in their attempts to divert a child from his path of self-destruction nor for the child who only ever steals a step-brother’s piggybank and gathers up some of his father’s old recording gear to fund his addiction.

From his leading role in Call Me By Your Name, we know that Timothée Chalamet is quite an acting talent. His face keeps changing and he successfully plays the many different versions of Nic: the one who sparks with joy; the one who deceives, promises the earth, and blames everyone around him; the one who really tries but can’t overcome the urge to replace the anxiety of sobriety by slipping back into a happier place of chemical fog; as well as the physically gaunt Nic in hospital.

Steve Carell plays David Sheff and certainly emotes a feeling familiar to many parents of being distracted in the workplace, overburdened by a family situation. He brings to life that need to grasp at every straw of illusive hope as well as portraying a reluctance to necessarily push the nuclear button to cut ties and protect the innocent from further damage.

My problems with the film shouldn’t override the joy at seeing difficult and unheroic parental situations being sensitively portrayed on the big screen. But at times it feels like the whole film was dropped on the floor during the editing process, leaving some scenes behind and others jumbled up when they were pieced back together.

Maura Tierney’s role as Karen Barbour (David’s second wife) is woefully under-developed while Nic’s fellow junkie friend Lauren (Kaitlyn Dever who recently popped up as Gary Hart’s daughter in The Front Runner) appears from nowhere more than half way through the film, shoots up, has sex and then disappears into the back of an ambulance never to be seen again. Perhaps that’s realistic, but it’s poor cinema.

For young couples visiting the cinema, Beautiful Boy may turn out to be a remarkably effective contraceptive, delaying notions of parenthood. It’s a tough road with no easy answers. Your beautiful child may not follow the path of Nic, but there’ll be plenty of other moments when you’ll reach for the Haynes Manual only to discover that the index disappoints.

Beautiful Boy is a salutary tale of how hard drugs get into your system and change how your brain responds, presumably one that a lot young people are already aware of, yet so many will be unable to dodge in their own lives. And a reminder that parents can’t be responsible for steering all the choices their children make – though that doesn’t stop us loving them all the more.

But in the end Beautiful Boy is not shocking. It doesn’t feel like the kind of film that deserves a miraculous ending. As the film spun around, descending towards the credits, I began to wonder whether the director Felix van Groeningen would be brave enough to divert from the source material and instead find painful closure in a funeral rather than a fresh start. For too many families – and I pause as I type to remember loved ones not too far away from me on the family tree – that is the tragic reality they face.

Beautiful Boy is playing in Movie House cinemas and Queen’s Film Theatre.

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