Movies

A fa­ther and son re­flect on a har­row­ing, real life re­cov­ery from drug ad­dic­tion—now a film star­ring Ti­mothy Cha­la­met and Steve Carell

Newsweek - - Contents - BY ZACH SCHONFELD @zzzza­aaac­c­c­chhh

Beau­ti­ful Boy's Real Fa­ther and Son

nic sheff thought he was go­ing to die. Some­times, he wel­comed it.

“I came close many times,” he tells Newsweek of his early 20s, when he was ad­dicted to metham­phetamine. Nic was so un­happy when he was clean, he thought he might as well use un­til it killed him. “That,” he thought, “will be bet­ter than liv­ing sober.” Nic be­gan drink­ing when he was 11, later ex­per­i­ment­ing with pot and co­caine. Crys­tal meth, which he tried at 18, was dif­fer­ent. The eu­phoric rush, as he wrote in his mem­oir, Tweak: Grow­ing Up on Metham­phetamines, made him feel whole for the first time in his life. When meth wasn’t avail­able, he sub­sti­tuted heroin or mor­phine, and his habit soon spi­raled into full­blown de­pen­dency, wreck­ing his life with star­tling ra­pid­ity. He dropped out of col­lege twice. Soon, he was pil­fer­ing cash from his 8-year-old brother, steal­ing hy­po­der­mic nee­dles and wak­ing up in hos­pi­tal rooms after over­dos­ing.

He has re­grets. So does ev­ery­one. But now 36 and eight years sober, Nic can watch his life’s dark­est mo­ments un­fold on the big screen.

Beau­ti­ful Boy, di­rected by Bel­gian film­maker Felix van Groenin­gen, chron­i­cles Nic’s har­row­ing slide into meth ad­dic­tion, as well as his fa­ther’s des­per­a­tion to save him. Nic is played by Ti­mothée Cha­la­met, in what crit­ics are call­ing an Os­car-wor­thy per­for­mance (it would be his sec­ond nom­i­na­tion, after his nod for 2017’s Call Me by Your Name). Nic’s fa­ther, jour­nal­ist David Sheff—whose own mem­oir, Beau­ti­ful Boy, gave the film its ti­tle and fa­ther-son fo­cus—is played by Steve Carell. The screen­play is also based on Nic’s mem­oir, re­leased at the same time as his fa­ther’s, in 2008.

In his book, David re­counts end­less vis­its to re­hab cen­ters, plead­ing calls to doc­tors and sleep­less nights spent won­der­ing if his son was alive. Watch­ing the screen Nic shoot­ing drugs “was ab­so­lutely hor­rific,” David says. “See­ing it is dif­fer­ent than read­ing about it or talk­ing about it. It was both sad and ter­ri­fy­ing.” When he met with Carell, the ac­tor told David he had no per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence with hard drugs. “But he was a par­ent. And that’s what he loved about the story: We want to pro­tect our kids, and what do we do when we can’t?”

Cha­la­met au­di­tioned for the part when he was 20, a vir­tual un­known be­yond film cir­cles. By the time the film pre­miered at the Toronto Film Fes­ti­val in Septem­ber, his work in Call Me by Your Name and Lady Bird had made him fa­mous. Nic de­scribes be­ing with him at the Beau­ti­ful Boy pre­miere: “Girls were lin­ing up out­side the res­tau­rant. We had to sneak out the back. It was like be­ing with the Bea­tles.”

Ex-bea­tle John Len­non, as it turns out, gave the film its ti­tle. David con­ducted the last ex­ten­sive in­ter­view with Len­non and his wife, Yoko Ono, for Play­boy mag­a­zine, in 1980. He was in the stu­dio when the cou­ple recorded “Beau­ti­ful Boy (Dar­ling Boy),” writ­ten for their son, Sean. Two days after the story was pub­lished, Len­non was killed by Mark David Chap­man.

Mu­sic be­came fraught for David dur­ing Nic’s battle. He re­mem­bers hear­ing Eric Clap­ton’s “Tears in Heaven” (about the death of the rock star’s young son), “and I just lost it.” He was out with his two younger chil­dren, who “were hor­ri­fied to see their fa­ther cry­ing in the mid­dle of a gro­cery store.”

The clas­sic Ad­dic­tion Movie Nar­ra­tive Arc goes like this: Char­ac­ter de­vel­ops drug or al­co­hol prob­lem, char­ac­ter hits rock bot­tom, and char­ac­ter ei­ther dies or gets clean. “They see the light, and they’re quote-un­quote ‘cured,’ and ev­ery­thing is wrapped up with a bow,” David says. In re­al­ity, “it’s so much more com­pli­cated. Hope is fol­lowed by dis­ap­point­ment, dis­ap­point­ment by de­spair—and if you’re lucky, there’s hope again.”

Though it’s a highly styl­ized drama­ti­za­tion, Beau­ti­ful Boy dis­penses with com­mon ad­dic­tion clichés: Here is a story where re­cov­ery does not progress in a straight line. There is, for in­stance, the scene where David gets a call from a re­hab cen­ter in­form­ing him that his son had fled. David pan­ics. The doc­tor re­as­sures him: “Re­lapse is a part of re­cov­ery.” It be­comes a sort of mantra as Nic keeps slip­ping.

“This is al­ways a huge chal­lenge to get fam­i­lies to un­der­stand,” says ad­dic­tion psy­chi­a­trist Scott Bienen­feld, med­i­cal di­rec­tor of the Re­cov­ery Spot in New York. “It’s an ill­ness, not some­thing that can just be swat­ted away. Re­lapse is what makes it ad­dic­tion.”

Bienen­feld is more sur­prised when re­lapse isn’t a prob­lem for long­time users. “Crys­tal meth is the most ad­dict­ing drug there is,” he adds. “When they mea­sure dopamine re­lease in the brain, meth dwarfs ev­ery­thing else.”

The film ably con­veys the way ad­dic­tion cor­rupts be­hav­ior, turn­ing abusers of heavy-duty drugs into ugly car­i­ca­tures of them­selves, and the film is most pow­er­ful watch­ing Cha­la­met. Nic, once bright and gen­tle, be­comes er­ratic and de­mon­i­cally self-de­struc­tive. “They look like so­ciopaths,” says Bienen­feld. “They do what­ever they can in the ser­vice of ad­dic­tion—like ly­ing, cheat­ing, steal­ing.” That, he adds, “doesn’t make them bad peo­ple.”

It took David a while to grasp that ad­dic­tion is an ill­ness, like can­cer or di­a­betes. When he did, “ev­ery­thing shifted in my heart,” he says. He stopped try­ing to con­trol and pun­ish his son. St­ints in high-priced re­hab cen­ters of­fered some hope, but most such at­tempts did not last. The break­through came when a psy­chi­a­trist di­ag­nosed Nic, then 27, with his un­der­ly­ing men­tal con­di­tions— in this case, bipo­lar dis­or­der and de­pres­sion. “It turned out that he was re­ally try­ing to self-med­i­cate for men­tal ill­ness,” David says. “Once she fig­ured out what was go­ing on, she got him on med­i­ca­tions and ther­apy.”

Nic, sober since 2010, is now mar­ried and liv­ing in Los An­ge­les, where he writes for TV shows (in­clud­ing 13 Rea­sons Why). “It’s just a mir­a­cle,” says David, who ad­mits to some sur­vivor’s guilt. “Why did my son make it, and all th­ese other par­ents had to bury their kids? There’s no an­swer other than luck and only luck.”

Re­cov­ery does not progress in a straight line. “Re­lapse is part of re­cov­ery” be­came a mantra.

FA­THER AND SON REUNION Beau­ti­fulBoy’s Cha­la­met and Carell, left, play­ing Nic and David Sheff, right, on the 2008 book tour for their sep­a­rate mem­oirs.

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