It has been two years to this date since I’ve used any drugs. I spent the day in steady reflection of the past. I went into a medically induced coma the day Donald Trump was elected President and slept for a couple months while the world around me changed. Imagine waking up in a different world, a new permutation of everything you had known, a parallel timeline. What happened is that I had a serious case of pneumonia and was asphyxiating from vomiting blood. I had gone in to complete a detox and instead everything changed. I had to learn to walk and talk again, right alongside my newborn daughter who witnessed much more than a baby ever needed to see. My family nearly had to plan a funeral, extrapolating that there was a very grim chance of survival. If it weren’t for my newborn, perhaps the cord would’ve been pulled from my vegetative state. With gratitude and luck, I’m happy to have survived. Today I work in recovery helping others get better. What my experience of addiction and my perspective of Beautiful Boy have shown me is that this is a powerful family disease.
That’s the crux of this film. Drugs never impact one person. There is a powerful reaction chain behind anyone who uses them for very long. Stemming from their supply across the boarders to the loved ones whom are greatly impacted by their use, it has become the national epidemic of the youth. We’re reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) which shows every step of the drug problem: from trafficking to the war on humanity (we now have too much information to naively believe in any drug war). This is a more personal story, exclusively about the fallout of drug addiction as it relates to family. Beautiful Boy operates more directly, sourcing the drama around the relationship of father (Steve Carrell) and son (Timothée Chalamet).
The film is based on two books about addiction: David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through His Son’s Addiction (2008) and his son Nic Sheff’s concurrent Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines (2008). They are both biographical tales of great sorrow and missed connection. When the bond between parents and their children is torn, both sides spiral into helpless disarray. This is what Beautiful Boy handily accomplishes that so few films ever get right about addiction. Wherever there is an addict, there is a sick, suffering family.
A decade ago, I did my first stint of rehab around the time their books were released. I left home for the mountains of Taos, New Mexico for a year. Deep in the desert of the state’s northern territory, I made an earnest attempt at sobriety, where we divided time between helping around the ranch and attending meetings. I eventually built up enough sobriety to get back to society and took up work at the Taos Public Library for a while, where I would find their books.
Sitting outside the town’s pueblo, I became entrenched in their stories in a very personal way. At night the mountains hummed, as though imbued with the energy of a higher spiritual matter. I read inside the dirt adobes that populated every street, the mountains famously imagined in The Hills Have Eyes (2006) usurping the landscape of dirt, everything the same material, consistently withholding the beauty of earth. The sky would always brighten at night in a way the city never did, a paradise for spiritual growth, perhaps proven by the abnormally large percentage of artists whom lived there.
These works connected me to something larger than myself. On family visits, their truth resounded with powerful precision. We’d sit in a dirt office and discuss the ways we have impacted our families. I had caused enough pain in my addiction and could start to see that spelled out on the faces of the people I loved. Crucially to the point, that was never enough to put an end to using.
That’s where Beautiful Boy sits, a great combined memoir of a family that has lost control. Suitably, both lead actors are great, and everyone else is complimentary to their goals. It is a film about the fractured relationship these books have cataloged, where there is no such thing as enough love or tough love enough to save someone.
The thing about addiction is that we stop when we are done. It has to go badly enough that we are willing to see the other side. In my case, I had to effectively die and be physically returned to find anything like absolution.
The important thing about Beautiful Boy is not whether it is a very good film. It’s certainly all right. The thing about Beautiful Boy is that it’s going to help people. It had been a life-changing book for so many. I cannot say that it personally changed me in any sense, but it helped. This is going to help anyone who sees it who is struggling.
There have been moments where I’ve faded away from life almost completely. My mind inside a coma went to the darkest recesses of my innermost thoughts. I dreamed a great voyage, a Heart of Darkness (1899) of the mind. A boat carried me across a shore of all the people I had loved. I waved and they could not respond back. They were trapped inside the glue of deathly imagination. The boat careened along all of the places that I had valued. I sailed by the Ocean, through the black-and-white streets of the 1920s I always so dreamed to live within, through Casablanca, improbably along an upward stream across the mountains of New Mexico, traveling the rivers of my internal poetry and sense of place. It was within this darkness that I found enough courage to return to my family, at the end of the cruise, the reaper with a blade to my neck, did I want to come back. Yes, I had to live for my daughter.
Two years removed from my out-of-body spiritual journey of another domain and my family is reconnected. I have renewed my relationships with my parents. My daughter is my world and I’m living with her and her mother, the love of my life. Life has unfolded with all of the potential that went missing while the light was out. This film left me in shambles, unable to really keep it in, and needing to express my gratitude for its willingness to help. I think it’s going to help so many people. If you’re ever wondering if it is too late, it never is. Whatever side of addiction you are on, there is help. Beautiful Boy is a good beginning resource to discover what is truly out there.
Originally written November 8, 2018