Years ago, I had a friend who was very excited about becoming a father. “It’s going to be great,” he told me about his soon-to-be-born son. “I’m going to turn him onto all this awesome music that I was never exposed to as a kid. He’s gonna love the Pogues and all these cool bands.” Basically, my friend wanted to create a mini-him, molding the child to like the same things that he did.
This always struck me as hopelessly naïve. People become parents for myriad reasons, but the worst motivation would seem to be using your child as some sort of bulwark against your own self-doubts. Like showing your favorite movies to a new girlfriend as a way to test her “worthiness,” fathers who want sons to be an extension of their own worldview risk being rudely disabused when their sons reject that arrangement. Try as hard as you’d like, dads: Children often end up not being exactly the men that you’d envisioned they’d be.
The drama Beautiful Boy is chiefly about the struggles of addiction—the movie is based on the memoirs of journalist David Sheff and his son Nic, who has battled substance abuse for years—but this Amazon film also doubles as an affecting, worst-case-scenario depiction of the unspoken tensions between fathers and sons. In Beautiful Boy, David fights to keep his son alive. But more poignantly, he’s also fighting to maintain the glowing image he has of his golden child—and by extension, his own rosy view of himself as a dad. The movie’s tragedy stems from David’s slow recognition that neither belief was as accurate as he’d assumed.
The film stars Steve Carell as David and Timothée Chalamet as Nic, and both are impeccably cast. Now in his mid-50s and sporting exquisite silver-fox gravitas, Carell possesses a natural warmth and gentleness that makes him the ideal movie dad. As for Chalamet, he’s a rising star fresh off his Oscar nomination for Call Me by Your Name, a soon-to-be 23-year-old actor who’s impossibly boyish and handsome—the very image of a next big thing. Chalamet effortlessly conveys Nic’s precocious intelligence and vibrancy—in real life, Nic Sheff was on his high school’s water polo team and was editor of the paper, not to mention an actor and model student—and so we instantly recognize him as the kind of son any parent would be proud to call his own.
But director Felix van Groeningen quickly chronicles how this golden child has become tarnished. Shuffling around chronologically—the past and the present seem to be happening simultaneously—Beautiful Boy observes as Nic gets hooked on meth. But crucially, the story is largely told from the perspective of David, who is a successful profile writer for publications like Playboy and Rolling Stone. He’s at the top of his field and living in the Bay Area in a gorgeous, rustic home. Sure, he’s divorced—Amy Ryan plays his first wife, Vicki, who lives in L.A.—but he’s remarried (Maura Tierney) and has two new children, alongside his beloved, talented Nic. From the outside, David is someone worth envying—which is how he wants it.
David isn’t an overtly ostentatious guy, but Carell plays him with just enough ego that we sense how this man has carefully crafted a life that reflects his high regard for himself. Whether it’s the handsomely framed letters from his appreciative interview subjects or the slightly superior tone he takes on the phone with his ex-wife, David has arranged everything to his liking—and that extends to his honor-student son. David sees Nic as his greatest achievement—this magnificent creation he brought into the world—and so the teenager’s lapse into addiction isn’t simply upsetting. For David, it’s also an affront to the seemingly perfect world he’s painstakingly crafted.
This isn’t to say that David doesn’t deeply love his boy. David tries plenty of different things to help Nic, including speaking with addiction experts, sending him to rehab and even sampling some of the drug to get a sense of its power. But nothing works—at least not for long—and no matter how much they care about each other, Nic’s disease keeps getting in the way, turning him into a monster. Chalamet always conveys just enough of the sweet, luminous earlier version of Nic during the character’s addiction that we can see how meth has mostly (but not entirely) stripped away the special young man he used to be.
Beautiful Boy’s decision to mix past and present proves devastating, illustrating how David constantly returns to happier memories as a meager attempt at shutting out the present. (Music is potently utilized: David sings John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” to his son as an infant, while the adolescent Nic rocks out to Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings” in the passenger seat as his hip, approving father watches on.) In Nic, David sees his own intelligence, sophistication, artistic sensibility and accomplishments reflected back to him—Nic is a living, breathing reassurance that he’s done well with his life. But Nic’s addiction rewrites that narrative, and David can’t reconcile reality with what’s now unfolding.
There’s a brutal irony inside Beautiful Boy that van Groeningen keeps circling: A son’s addiction would be heartbreaking for any parent, but for David it’s doubly disturbing because it flies in the face of the control he’s tried to assert in all things. Meth doesn’t just have a hold of Nic—it’s reshaping his brain, increasing his paranoia and turning him into someone his family no longer recognizes. David is anguished, but he’s also selfishly embarrassed. When David gets frustrated with his son, what goes unspoken is his sense of shame: Upper-class people like them aren’t supposed to be tweakers—they’re meant to be too cultivated for that. His new wife picks up on this when David gives her a hard time for telling friends about Nic’s addiction—after all, why didn’t she ever consider how this awful business would make David look?
All fathers eventually learn that they can’t protect their children forever—and that their kids will become their own people, an act of betrayal that’s necessary but also bittersweet. For David, who has invested so much of his self-worth in his son, Nic’s addiction is a rude reminder how little control parents actually have over their offspring. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” Lennon famously sings in “Beautiful Boy.” Life comes at David fast in Beautiful Boy, but this father eventually, reluctantly acknowledges that he didn’t fail because of his son’s addiction—he failed because he assumed his own sense of himself was so strong that nothing terrible could ever puncture it.
Turns out, liking the same bands isn’t enough.