First of all, I want to say this article was wholly inspired by a commentary by Daniel Reynolds at The Advocate. It's not often that a writer says this, but please read Reynolds' piece before you read mine.
I saw Beautiful Boy over a month ago, and my hopes were fairly high considering the pedigree. Directed and co-written by Felix van Groeningen, the drama is based on two memoirs: Tweak by Nic Sheff and Beautiful Boy by his father David Sheff. It’s about Nic’s struggles with addiction—mainly meth addiction—and the impact it had on his family.
There’s very little about Beautiful Boy that’s actively bad, but when it was over I was disappointed and frustrated. I definitely wasn’t moved. And given my past struggles with addiction, this movie should have destroyed me. If it were done right.
I haven’t read either of the memoirs, so it wasn’t until after I’d read the article in The Advocate that something really clicked: there is no mention of prostitution, gay sex, or sex for drugs. There’s barely any mention of anything LGBTQ+ at all in the film, which I find insulting the more I think about it. It takes place in the '90s in New York and San Francisco, and there isn’t even a mention of AIDS or HIV. Seriously?!
In his memoir, Nic details years of sex work in active addiction. He identities as heterosexual, but says he’s had a lot of gay sex for drug money. Not uncommon at all in this world—in fact, it’s pretty much expected with the territory. In a 2011 essay, Nic says his family and friends told him at first that he should keep the stories of sex-for-drug-money out of his book:
Honestly, I’m not sure why the whole prostitution thing, above all the other fucked up shit I did (including stealing money from my seven-year-old brother) was the one thing everyone said I should keep to myself. Was it some kind of latent homophobia? Or maybe they worried that people would look at me like I was dirty or something. But why are people more uptight about prostitution than they are about shooting drugs? Is selling yourself more dirty or embarrassing than all the other dirty, embarrassing drug shit we do?
Prostitution was something I wanted to do. That sounds crazy fucked up, but it’s true. And when I was out there, you know, hustling, I’m telling you, a lot of the kids I met were just like me. They wanted to feel like I wanted to feel. They wanted to feel wanted. Because, after all, there is a certain pride in being owned.
Getting high and prostitution really was like the same thing for me. They were almost indistinguishable from one another. And that’s why I felt absolutely compelled to include it in my book.
Sheff says selling himself made him “feel good or beautiful or important or whatever.” I’m sure so many people can relate to all these painful truths. Alas, they’re not in the film and the film is hard to connect with.
I didn’t know about this glaring, red-letter omission until after I’d seen the film. I didn’t want to make this about me and jump to the conclusion that the movie falls short because it’s a watered-down, sanitized version of what I know about the underbelly of drug addiction in the big city (Nic spent years in San Francisco, away from his family)— but what I know is largely the truth.
Roughly one in four gay men say they’ve used crystal meth at least once in their lives. I live in West Hollywood, and I can tell you it’s an epidemic here. It’s hugely to blame for the spread of HIV and other diseases. And sex work is a part of most gay meth addicts' stories. Completely removing it from this narrative is harmful, irresponsible—and to boot, it’s one of the reasons the movie is so damn limp when it should be brutal and affecting.
Beautiful Boy has its merits—mostly the actors. Chalamet is superb, even when the script lets him down. I don’t think Carell was the right choice for David, but he does quality work here nonetheless. The movie is also mostly from David’s perspective, and that’s one of the reasons it suffers and falls short.
The film opened nationwide this weekend. Do I recommend it? That’s hard for me to say. I’m kind of on the fence about the whole enterprise. Good intentions are there, but it’s hard to imagine anyone being that deeply moved or enlightened by Beautiful Boy.
One day we will have a definitive motion picture about the experience of crystal meth addiction. This is not it.
*Note: If you want to see a better, more truthful and insightful recent movie about addiction look no further than A Star Is Born [really] or 2016’s extraordinary Krisha.
h/t: The Advocate
This post is the opinions of one of the contributing editors of Instinct Magazine and may not reflect the opinion of the magazine or the other contributing writers.