Fathers and Sons, Reliving on Film the Pain of Addiction

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Nic Sheff was sitting next to his father, David, as he recounted one of the lowest moments in his life. It was the time when Nic, college-aged and living in his father’s home, observed his little brother, Jasper, and their younger sister, Daisy, fighting over a few missing dollars that Jasper accused Daisy of stealing from him. All along, Nic knew that he was the thief and that he’d robbed his brother to finance his own methamphetamine habit.

Having recently watched this re-enacted in a movie, Nic, now 36 and eight years sober, struggled for a moment as he sought the right words to describe the disembodied way it made him feel.

“I — well, the Nic character — no, I — stole the money,” he said. “It’s such a shameful thing. I knew it was in the script, but just watching it, it was like, oh, God.”

That era was harrowing for the Sheffs. Nic was scrounging the darkest corners of California’s Bay Area in search of his next fix while David was glued to his phone, waiting for the call from his son to come rescue him or from the emergency room to tell him that Nic hadn’t made it.

Whatever star-struck feelings the Sheffs may have about the project or the people playing them, they cannot help but brace for the inevitable pain of opening up old wounds — the discomfort of seeing themselves at their most desperate, on display for a mass audience.

But beneath these conflicting emotions is one they did not expect: gratitude, for the chance to reflect on an agonizing past and appreciate how lucky they were to survive it.

“Of course it brings us right back to those years, and those years were horrific,” David Sheff added. “At the same time, it’s really good to remember.”

“Beautiful Boy” is a movie that has added resonance for me, too. I also grew up in a family with a drug addict: My father abused cocaine for roughly the first 20 years of my life, and I’ve written previously about how this fractured our relationship and how we eventually repaired it. (In the interest of full disclosure, David Sheff blurbed a memoir I published in 2011.)

Though the story told in “Beautiful Boy” is the inverse of mine, the film taps into some greater truths about addiction: what it is like to live with a user, or to recover and relapse back into addiction, and what it is like to carry the shame of someone else’s degrading behavior, even as you care for that person. It doesn’t pretend to prescribe easy solutions to such complicated problems.

Most of all, the movie offers a stark illustration of why those of us who have lived through stories like these feel compelled to tell them, again and again.

When I sat down with the Sheffs last month, I saw little outward evidence of the traumas they’d endured. David, now 62, has a lined and stately face that disguises his own bohemian coming of age in Northern California, while Nic has retained a boyish, sad-eyed handsomeness.

They are comfortable together, and though there’s little that’s unknown about either of them anymore, they were the first to learn each other’s worst secrets and still know exactly how to push one another’s buttons.

As open as they are about themselves, and as often as they have told their stories, they still approached the film adaptation process with some wariness, knowing that it meant revisiting their bad choices and outdated perspectives.

David recalled his difficult struggle to see his addicted son with sympathy, to make the mental shift from “how could he do this to me and the family and to himself, to understanding that he was troubled and ill.”

“Once I did,” he said, “I could look at him with compassion and sadness instead of judgment and horror.”

Nic spoke of the enduring prejudices faced by addicts, who are often seen as selfish hedonists. “We have this image of kids who are getting high, having fun, and they don’t care who it hurts,” he said. Looking at himself from a distance, Nic added: “Clearly this kid is not having fun. He’s having trouble.”

The Sheffs said they were reassured by the film’s director, Felix Van Groeningen, the Belgian filmmaker (“The Broken Circle Breakdown”) for whom “Beautiful Boy” is his first English-language feature.

Mr. Van Groeningen, who with his fellow screenwriter Luke Davies (“Lion”) merged the Sheffs’ memoirs into a single narrative, told me he was particularly drawn to “David’s mythical journey as a father, trying to understand and save his son.”

“At some point it almost read like a thriller,” he added. “There’s this very visceral feeling of never being worry-free.”

During the film’s development, Mr. Van Groeningen embedded himself with the Sheffs, surfing with Nic and taking long, philosophical walks with David, looking through his family photos and sleeping over at his house.

The director said he emerged with the desire to preserve a certain emotional truth about them. “There’s a sense of unconditional love in their family that is amazing and beautiful,” Mr. Van Groeningen said. “It is maybe one of the reasons why Nic found his way out.”

Mr. Chalamet, the Oscar-nominated star of “Call Me by Your Name,” told me that he also felt a personal obligation to spend time with Nic before playing him in “Beautiful Boy.”

Given “the nature of the story and how intimate it is, I try to be sensitive to that,” he said. “It would be really cavalier as an actor if I didn’t.”

But he added that his and Mr. Carell’s performances were ultimately depictions of the Sheffs and not a perfect recreation of them. “By the laws of reality, we’re not them and couldn’t possibly be,” he said.

“What they went through is the actual story,” he said. What interested him and his collaborators was “making a movie as universal is possible.”

I can say from my own experiences that “Beautiful Boy” achieves this, in the anxious mood it conjures of a father who becomes preoccupied and then obsessed with his efforts to safeguard his son from his drug habit. As David Sheff writes in his memoir, “I became addicted to my child’s addiction.”

The film captures the precariousness of an addict’s sobriety, how easily it is violated, and how humiliating and frustrating the repeated experience is for the sufferer and his loved ones.

“There’s the feeling that everyone is watching you, suspicious of you,” Nic Sheff said. “It’s something that is difficult for addicts when they’re getting sober, that feeling of, how do I build back trust?”

“Beautiful Boy” is also a movie that is undaunted about arriving at an ambiguous ending (which I won’t spoil here); it doesn’t promise the potential redemption of its characters, nor does it strike the relentlessly bleak tone of, say, “Requiem for a Dream.”

“It ends in such a way that you really don’t know what’s going to happen next,” David Sheff said. “There’s no doubt about the love and commitment within this family. But that’s reality of what it means to be addicted.”

The Sheffs’ memoirs were published long enough ago that the books describe, in earnest, details that their readers were likely to be unfamiliar with at the time, whether the effects of methamphetamine or the pernicious ways it alters users’ brain chemistry.

Since then, use of the drug in the United States has skyrocketed, and it was involved in more than 10,000 overdose deaths in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A record 72,000 Americans were killed by drug overdoses last year, a figure driven in part by synthetic opioids. President Trump has declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

All of which, the Sheffs say, makes the story of “Beautiful Boy” relevant if not urgent, regardless of which drug figures most prominently in it.

“My brain chemistry really liked crystal meth more than anything else,” Nic said. “But I was doing heroin, I was taking whatever pills I could get. Addicts will take whatever is there in front of them.”

David added, “The impacts on the families are no different.”

It’s a bittersweet result of the success of their books and the increased visibility that the movie has already brought them that the Sheffs often find themselves hearing the stories of other families affected by drug addiction. The accounts are delivered in face-to-face conversations, in emails or social media posts, and they are frequently bleak.

As David Sheff explained: “Over and over, it’s: ‘You told our story, but our story had a different ending. Our child died.’”

He continued, “The idea that I can look up and see Nic sitting next to me as we’re watching this movie ——” His voice trailed off.

But other stories give them hope. Scrolling through Twitter on his phone, David landed at a message that he said was “our dream for what the movie would do”: a note from someone who said that “Beautiful Boy” had inspired the writer to reconsider the plight of a cousin with a drug addiction and apologize to him.

Even as they are made to reckon yet again with their own personal tragedy, the Sheffs are finding new wrinkles and nuances in it, and discovering new value in the act of revisiting it.

“It feels like we’ve hammered out every last thing we could have possibly had a hidden resentment about,” Nic Sheff said. “We’ve had to deal with every last piece of the complicated puzzle of our history. It feels like there’s nothing we can’t talk about, nothing we have to shy away from or ignore. That feels like a huge gift, too.”

Source : https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/12/movies/beautiful-boy-david-sheff-nic-sheff.html