Fa­ther, his son and an ad­dic­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

he ti­tle of the first Amer­i­can film by Bel­gian di­rec­tor Fe­lix Van Groenin­gen (who made The Bro­ken Cir­cle Break­down in 2012) is Beau­ti­ful Boy, and it in­evitably re­calls the haunt­ing song that was writ­ten by John Len­non about his baby son not long be­fore the Beatle was mur­dered. The melan­choly con­no­ta­tions are apt be­cause the film — based on a pair of mem­oirs, Beau­ti­ful Boy: A Fa­ther’s Jour­ney through his Son’s Ad­dic­tion (2008) writ­ten by San Fran­cisco jour­nal­ist David Sh­eff and We All Fall Down: Liv­ing with Ad­dic­tion (2011) by his son Nic — is a heart­break­ing in­sight into the pain ex­pe­ri­enced by a par­ent when an adored child be­comes in­volved in a de­struc­tive and dan­ger­ous ad­dic­tion. Nic Sh­eff, at the age of 18, has be­come hope­lessly ad­dicted to crys­tal meth and heroin, and his fa­ther, though des­per­ate to help him, is im­po­tent.

Steve Carell plays David in one of this ver­sa­tile ac­tor’s finest per­for­mances, while the re­mark­able Ti­mothee Cha­la­met, so mem­o­rable in Call Me By Your Name, is painfully be­liev­able as Nic. In the open­ing se­quence, a vis­i­bly drawn and an­guished David seeks help from a spe­cial­ist in drug ad­dic­tion. “What is it do­ing to him?” he asks, and then: “What can I do to help him?”

The an­swer to the sec­ond ques­tion, sadly, is: not a great deal. Once an ad­dic­tion takes hold, as we know, the vic­tim be­comes ir­ra­tional and ma­nip­u­la­tive. Yet David and Nic were once so close. When David’s mar­riage to Nic’s mother, Vicki (Amy Ryan), ended he was given cus­tody of the boy. He’s now mar­ried to the warm­hearted Karen (Maura Tier­ney) and they have two young chil­dren of their own. On the sur­face, Nic is ev­ery­thing a fa­ther could wish for in his son: charm­ing, in­tel­li­gent, strik­ingly hand­some and, yes, beau­ti­ful. But all that changes when he tries crys­tal meth for the first time. It’s not long be­fore the ad­dic­tion grips and Nic be­gins stay­ing out all night, re­turn­ing home to frighten his young sib­lings with his strange be­hav­iour and to fill his fa­ther with dread. There are times when he prom­ises to stop, when he swears he will re­turn to a nor­mal life, but he al­ways back­slides. Plac­ing him in a res­i­den­tial home for ad­dicts is no so­lu­tion — he sim­ply walks away and even­tu­ally winds up, to­gether with his girl­friend, Lau­ren (Kait­lyn Dever), in some sor­did and dan­ger­ous places.

The Sh­eff mem­oirs have been adapted for the screen by Van Groenin­gen in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Aus­tralian poet, novelist and screen­writer Luke Davies, who scripted Lion (2016) and whose novel about drug ad­dic­tion, Candy, was brought to the screen in 2006 by di­rec­tor Neil Arm­field with Heath Ledger and Ab­bie Cor­nish in the lead­ing roles. It’s a fine screen­play, no­table for the in­sights it of­fers into this night­mar­ish world. Van Groenin­gen’s di­rec­tion is also as­sured and there are mem­o­rable per­for­mances in the two prin­ci­pal roles. For any­one with a fam­ily mem­ber who has suf­fered an ad­dic­tion — in­clud­ing al­co­holism and gam­bling — Beau­ti­ful Boy will pro­vide a chal­leng­ing and, quite pos­si­bly, an up­lift­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. A world away from the north­ern Cal­i­for­nian set­tings of Beau­ti­ful Boy, Ukrainian di­rec­tor Sergei Loznitsa’s dev­as­tat­ing Don­bass un­folds in the dis­puted ter­ri­tory of eastern Ukraine in 2014-15 as pro-Rus­sian forces, em­ploy­ing vi­o­lently ruth­less meth­ods, take over the ter­ri­tory around the town that gives the film its ti­tle. The open­ing scene sets the tone: in a makeshift makeup room lo­cated in a trailer, ac­tors are be­ing pre­pared for a scene in which they re­act to an ex­plo­sion in the street out­side. This is the essence of fake news and the film re­turns to these ac­tors even­tu­ally for the film’s shat­ter­ing con­clu­sion.

Don­bass lacks a con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive. In­stead it’s com­posed of a se­ries of scenes that il­lus­trate the chaos and hor­ror of life in this part of the world. At a town meet­ing, an an­gry woman pours ex­cre­ment over the head of a lo­cal of­fi­cial, claim­ing she has been li­belled. A coura­geous Ger­man jour­nal­ist and his in­ter­preter en­counter a hos­tile unit of Rus­sians who re­spond to his ques­tions by call­ing him a fas­cist. Men, women and chil­dren forced from their homes are liv­ing in the most squalid con­di­tions, yet an el­derly woman re­fuses her smartly dressed daugh­ter’s en­treaties to leave with her — pre­sum­ably be­cause the daugh­ter is work­ing for, and pos­si­bly sleep­ing with, the in­vaders.

A young man goes to a po­lice sta­tion, where an old Soviet flag is promi­nently dis­played, to com­plain that his car has been stolen: big mis­take. An un­for­tu­nate Ukrainian, ac­cused of be­ing an as­sas­sin, is tied to a post in the mid­dle of town and left to the mercy of an in­creas­ingly an­gry mob. And so it goes on, with lit­tle back­ground ex­pla­na­tion to these events but a very con­vinc­ing de­pic­tion of a night­mar­ish place where law and or­der is non-ex­is­tent.

Loznitsa has made sev­eral fine films be­fore this, most re­cently a sear­ing up­dat­ing of the Dos­toyevsky novel A Gen­tle Crea­ture (2017). Much of the power of Don­bass lies in the qual­ity of the lo­ca­tion pho­tog­ra­phy, by Ro­ma­nian cine­matog­ra­pher Oleg Mutu, which is mag­nif­i­cent. The pac­ing is de­lib­er­ate but this cool ap­proach serves only to mag­nify the dis­tress­ing in­sights into a dan­ger­ous world in which law­less fa­nat­ics have as­sumed con­trol. Who cen­sors the in­ter­net? The Clean­ers, a well made and in­for­ma­tive Ger­man doc­u­men­tary by Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block, re­veals that Face­book, Twit­ter and Google em­ploy a com­pany based in Manila to act as “con­tent mod­er­a­tors” and that those ac­tu­ally do­ing the “mod­er­at­ing” are mainly young and mostly come from poor back­grounds — yet they’re ex­pected to make split-sec­ond de­ci­sions that may af­fect the lives of thou­sands.

One “moder­a­tor” re­veals that he has to view 25,000 images ev­ery day. And it comes as no sur­prise that these barely trained Third World cen­sors are bi­ased. One woman is deeply re­li­gious yet is as­signed to view sex­ual con­tent that for her is shame­ful. A nude por­trait of Don­ald Trump, painted by an Amer­i­can fe­male artist, is pro­hib­ited and the artist’s Face­book ac­count ter­mi­nated as a re­sult. An­other “moder­a­tor” is a pas­sion­ate sup­porter of Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte’s vi­o­lent war against drug deal­ers. The un­de­sir­able con­tent in­cludes some ob­vi­ous ma­te­rial (Is­lamic State be­head­ings) and some that is less ob­vi­ous. Po­lit­i­cal tweets are clearly a grey area.

Though The Clean­ers, which is filmed in an omi­nous, noirish style, suf­fers from some un­nec­es­sary pad­ding, it’s a re­veal­ing and timely doc­u­men­tary. I Want To Eat Your Pan­creas is, as the ti­tle sug­gests, a very strange movie. A Ja­panese anime re­make of a live-ac­tion film made in Ja­pan last year, it’s about the grow­ing friend­ship be­tween a pair of high school stu­dents — a boy who is in­tro­verted in the ex­treme and a girl suf­fer­ing from a fa­tal dis­ease of the pan­creas. The colours are pal­lid and the an­i­ma­tion sim­ple, but the over­all ef­fect is sur­pris­ingly mov­ing.

Clock­wise from main: Ti­mothee Cha­la­met and Steve Carell in Beau­ti­ful Boy; a scene from Don­bass; Ja­panese anime I Want to Eat Your Pan­creas (Kimi no suizowo tabetai); The Clean­ers film­maker Moritz Riesewieck

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