Father, his son and an addiction
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