The father and son behind 'Beautiful Boy'
Jessamy Calkin interviews the real-life characters whose story of drug addiction is now an award-nominated film
Jessamy Calkin interviews the father and son whose journey through years of crystal meth addiction lies behind the film Beautiful Boy
In his 2007 memoir Tweak, Nic Sheff describes an experiment with flies performed by a scientist in San Francisco, who created a small corridor infused with a vapour of alcohol and cocaine that the flies could inhale if they chose to.
From time to time, all the flies would wander down the corridor, but a small percentage took that route over and over again, eschewing food and water, even after they became wobbly or passed out.
When she reinforced the corridor with an electrified panel, those flies still chose to go down it, even though they got electric shocks. Through this experiment, the scientist was able to isolate genes linked to addiction.
Sheff can relate to this idea – that addiction stems from genetic disposition rather than moral failing. He was a high-achieving, popular child raised brought up in a fairly affluent home in San Francisco. He started smoking daggwhen he was 12, then began drinking heavily.
By the age of 18 he had moved on to crystal meth, sometimes combined with heroin.
Portrait of anguish
In order to maintain his habit he relentlessly stole from everyone, including his little brother and his grandparents; prostituted himself, lived in a park, overdosed and ended up in hospital, nearly lost his arm to infection, and almost died from convulsions brought on by repeatedly injecting himself with cocaine.
Tweak and his father David’s memoir, Beautiful Boy, are the basis of a new film directed by Felix van Groeningen, starring Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell.
It is a portrait of anguish, of David’s refusal to give up on his drug-addicted son, his desperate attempts to find a cure and to understand why his much-loved, intelligent son became an addict in the first place.
Beautiful Boy manages to avoid the tiresome cliches of films about drug addiction, through enlightened direction and a strong script (by van Groeningen and Luke Davies, himself a former drug addict), as well as outstanding performances from Carell as David and Chalamet as Nic.
“If I’m not living on the verge of death, I feel like I’m not really living,” wrote Nic in Tweak.
It is extremely well written, but very hard to read, not only because of its detailed and visceral portrayal of drug use, but because of the amount of life-threatening situations he put himself in.
So it was reassuring to find him composed, healthy looking and articulate, sitting on a sofa next to his father in a London hotel late last year.
Now 36, he has been clean and sober for eight years, after more than a decade in and out of rehab in a chronic cycle of relapse. It is, he says, as if he was kidnapped by drugs.
The horrifying truth is that drug overdose is the leading cause of death in the under-50s in the US today. The largest spike of overall drug overdoses in American history came in 2016, and last year the statistics went up further – with 70,237 drug-related deaths.
This is partly fuelled by the opioid crisis in America, but the main problem, according to David Sheff, is a misunderstanding of addiction and how to treat it.
How it started
Nic was 12 when his father discovered some dagga in his backpack, at their home near San Francisco. His parents had split up when he was four.
A prolonged custody battle resulted in his spending term time with his father in San Francisco and holidays with his mother in Los Angeles – an arrangement David believes destabilised him and contributed to a sense of alienation.
But he had a loving childhood and, until his father remarried, he was a sidekick to David’s slightly unconventional bachelor lifestyle.
His father, a journalist who writes for magazines such as Playboy and Rolling Stone, educated him in every aspect of culture.
They had a particularly close bond and Nic remembers hanging out with his father’s famous friends – playing tag with psychologist Timothy Leary’s son and throwing up on photographer Ansel Adams’ rug.
When Nic was seven, his father married Karen Barbour, an artist, and they went on to have two children, Jasper and Daisy, whom Nic adored.
He did well at school but then he started smoking. “It took me a really long time to understand what was going on with Nic,” says David. “Now I know that if I had looked deeper, I would have realised Nic was in trouble. He had all this internal anxiety and he was really struggling.”
When his father questioned the dagga, Nic dismissed it as something everybody did, and became very good at hiding things, even from the therapists David had sent him to since the marriage breakup.
He got into a very selective high school and things seemed to be going well, but in fact he was smoking pot daily.
“I wasn’t being naughty or mischievous – I was in a lot of pain and I was reaching out to these drugs to try and feel better.”
As a teenager he began drinking secretly, and returned from a study trip to Paris looking wasted and grey and suffering from an ulcer.
Then, in 2000, at Hampshire Ccollege in Massachusetts, when he was 18, Nic discovered the drug crystal meth.
“The first time I did a line of crystal it was like my whole world changed,” he wrote. “I felt confident and strong and like I could do anything. I felt like a rock star. It was like everything I’d been missing my whole life, and I wanted to hold on to that feeling, because it was exactly what I needed.”
From then on his life was a relentless slide of drug use, rehab, relapse, withdrawals, overdoses and hospitalisations.
He took every kind of drug available, although meth was his drug of choice, often combined with heroin. His behaviour deteriorated drastically: he was arrested in front of his siblings, stole from his little brother’s piggy bank, and was chased by his stepmother after he broke into the family home.
He stole from everybody – friends, relations, even his relations’ friends.
With content like this the film could be grim, of course, but there are a lot of stirring family scenes to keep its head above water.
Time periods shift about in the same way memory does, creating a vivid portrait of the chaos that addiction brings, and David’s desperate attempt to keep a grip on his older son while trying to raise his young family.
Van Groeningen (who was nominated for an Academy Award for his film The Broken Circle Breakdown) spent a lot of time with the Sheffs, as did Carell and Chalamet later.
“Timothée asked me a million questions about everything, from the emotions I was feeling to the physicality of what it actually looks like to be high on these drugs and what it looks like to be detoxing,” Nic says.
The film doesn’t offer a hidden cause for Nic’s addiction because there wasn’t one: he may have a genetic disposition to it (his grandfather was an alcoholic who drank himself to death), and his early life of to-ing and fro-ing between parents may have unsettled him.
“There’s substantial evidence that addiction is inherited in about 60 per cent of cases,” says David. “But not everyone with alcoholism and addiction in their families becomes addicted, and vice versa.
No easy answers
Nic had addiction on his mother’s side and mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder (which I have too) on my side.
“Environment is another factor. Many people who become addicted have experienced trauma of obvious or subtle forms as well.”
What, I ask David, would he have done differently, with hindsight?
“Everything,” he says.“The one thing I wouldn’t change – which I think the movie really captures – is that I wouldn’t give up on Nic. There is a moment where my character in the movie steps back and he is so exhausted – but still you can see that the love is there, and he would just never quit.
“I feel like if I had got him into the hands of a really good doctor or a psychiatrist, who could have figured out that he had depression – and we had got treatment for it – that might have shifted everything.”
How would Nic have reacted to that? Nic hesitates.
“I was feeling that I was unfixable. So I was really resistant to therapy. But I’ve now seen that there are doctors and therapists who can really help young people with that feeling of alienation and anxiety, and help them learn to love themselves – as much as that sounds cheesy.”
“I looked at my kid,” adds David, “and asked, what happened? Here’s this lovely, moral, kind person and suddenly he’s acting in a way that’s just reprehensible. Was I too lenient? Was I too harsh? Was the divorce responsible?
“And there were other factors too – we live in a world where drugs such as pot are around all the time – so is that why? But none of that is what makes somebody addicted – it has to do with brain chemistry and genetics.’
He has now written a book called Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy. David says: “Once I learned the science behind it, how addiction works, then the judgment, blame and anger just melted away, and I said, ‘OK, my son is sick.’ And that took a long time.
“Nic was really smart – he learnt how to show us what we wanted to see and tell us what we wanted to hear – which I think is not uncommon for a child of divorce.”
Nic always got on very well with his stepmother, Karen (played in the film by Maura Tierney).
“Karen really wanted to support me and she adored Nic,” says David, “although she was also the mother bear, wanting to protect her younger kids.
“But instead of destroying our marriage, it just made it better and stronger.”
It was the constant relapsing that wore them all down; and which in the end forced David to stop taking his son back home – for his own sanity, but also for the sake of Jasper and Daisy, whom he needed to protect.
The film doesn’t show any magic solutions to the problem of drug addiction.
Rehab, especially in America, is an industry like any other, and like any other there are good and bad factions within it.
“The rehab industry is corrupt, and programmes charge unconscionable amounts of money to desperate people, and yet many offer terrible treatment,” says David.
“To me, the answer is, there is no answer,” says Nic. “I have a disease – that’s what the movie shows.
"When you have this disease of addiction, you get trapped in this cycle; you keep reaching out to the drugs to make you feel better, but as soon as you do that the drugs take over again and you’re kind of possessed by them, and the whole cycle starts over.”
The film-makers were determined the film should not glamorise drug use.
Chalamet’s portrayal of Nic – for which was nominated for a Golden Globe award – with all his twitching, shifty behaviour, alternately pleading and belligerent – is hugely convincing.
But he is, after all, Timothée Chalamet, the hottest young actor for a decade. He has a face that’s hard to sabotage. And I can’t help feeling that if they’d got someone unknown or less attractive, the film would have been very different.
Nic is now a writer and has been clean and sober for eight years. – The Telegraph