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I am not typically up and out of the house before 7 a.m., but a few days ago I happened to be at a break-of-dawn meeting — you know, the kind of meeting where alcoholics and addicts gather to focus on recovery and the 12 steps. And as we all were finding our way to our seats, one woman announced quite passionately to the rest of us early birds, “I saw our movie last night!” This is L.A., so “our movie” could mean ownership in many forms: Was she a director or producer? Maybe an actress? A publicist perhaps? Nope. Anonymous lady was not at all involved in the film she watched the previous evening — Beautiful Boy, starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet. But as a person in recovery, she claimed it on our behalf because its plot is basically the reason we were all seated in brown folding chairs on a Thursday just after sunrise.
In fact, Amazon’s Beautiful Boy — with Chalamet as a charming kid teetering on the edge and Carell as his I-love-you-so-much-it-hurts father — is just one of the high-profile films vying for Oscar gold this season that traffic in substance-abuse-related plots and performances.
There’s also Warner Bros.’ A Star Is Born, a worldwide hit that has collected $295.5 million, with Bradley Cooper as an alcoholic rock star; Lucas Hedges as an opioid addict who ditches sober living to surprise his family on Christmas Eve in Roadside Attractions’ Ben Is Back, opening Dec. 7, with a never-better Julia Roberts as Ben’s I-love-you-so-much-it-hurts mother; and Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant as alcoholic delinquents with a big secret in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Certainly, addicts and alcoholics often make for compelling and idiosyncratic characters because they can be both villain and hero in the same story — dependent upon where they stand in the one-day-at-a-time of it all. And that hasn’t been lost on Hollywood. Films have trained a spotlight on self-destructive alcoholics since before even the original 1937 A Star Is Born, with a boozy Fredric March. And the Academy has frequently rewarded performers who wrestle with the bottle — Ray Milland in 1945’s The Lost Weekend, Nicolas Cage in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas (on my personal favorites list alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in 1995’s The Basketball Diaries and Naomie Harris in 2017’s best picture Oscar winner Moonlight).
This year’s films, though, could be held to an even higher standard than those of the past. In addition to how well they work as drama, they’ll be judged on how accurately they portray addiction and recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1936, was a fairly new concept when The Lost Weekend was released — alcoholism was not freely discussed and no recovery industry existed. Today, as the Beautiful Boy end credits powerfully state, more than 72,000 lives were lost to overdoses in 2017, and there were another 82,000 alcohol-related deaths that year. On this subject, authenticity now matters more than ever.
So, as someone who has been gratefully sober since Jan. 12, 2010, I am relieved these films live up to the challenge. I want to see A Star Is Born a second time, not for its concert sequences or Lady Gaga (though both are worth repeat viewing) but for Cooper’s pained expression and glassy eyes as he stumbles toward another blackout. I’ve been there — and so has he. Cooper, who’s been open about his recovery, once said sobriety was the best thing that ever happened to him. “I wouldn’t have been able to have access to myself or other people, or even been able to take in other people, if I hadn’t changed my life.” Same.
I also cheered Chalamet’s committed and convincing performance in Beautiful Boy as Nic Sheff, on whose memoir (and that of his father, David Sheff) the film is based. For me, director Felix van Groeningen’s decision to tell a nonlinear story robbed the film of the full emotional wallop I experienced when I read the two memoirs. But Chalamet is just as convincing and electric as a strung-out IV drug user as he is in a reflective moment on a beach with his kid brother. And when Carell, in a finely tuned performance, refuses to help his son anymore because that’s often the best thing one can do for an addict — “I love you, and I hope you get your life together,” he says as he hangs up — I recognized the moment because I know how badly dial tones can sting.
Peter Hedges’ Ben Is Back — so great I have seen it twice — while also offering a gripping and emotional tug-of-war, takes the broadest view of its subject through intricately woven scenes that address many issues surrounding addiction. It’s about family, forgiveness, skeptical relatives and where to place the blame for America’s urgent opioid crisis. There are much-deserved digs about insurance coverage and the government’s troubling and complicated treatment of addicts. And the 12-step meeting featured in the film is the most authentic one you’ll see. It manages all of this without ever feeling preachy. Quite a filmmaking feat.
The elder Hedges said that he’d been thinking about this film for years and it shows. In Toronto, he explained that he lost his favorite actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, to an overdose; his mother got sober when he was 15 years old and he estimates that he joined her for hundreds of AA meetings over 22 years as he watched her “save so many lives,”; and his niece, who survived a near-death experience, appears (with blue hair) in the film’s 12-step meeting.
I spent years asking myself the same questions Lucas Hedges’ Ben contemplates onscreen, like this one, “With the things I’ve done to myself and others, I don’t know why I’m still here,” he says. In another scene, he stares at his perfect sister (an impeccable Kathryn Newton) singing in church and sobs. I know why — as an addict normalcy can sometimes seem too far a reach. It hurt my heart when wunderkind Lucas Hedges declares not once but twice, “I’m not worth it.” I believed that I wasn’t either until a surrender changed everything.
While those who’ve been through recovery undoubtedly will measure these films by their own personal experiences, like I have, that’s not to suggest that a wider audience won’t also be able to relate. As Roberts explained of her film when I talked to her about why these dramas seem so topical and universal right now, “Our movie is just this one family on this one day, and it reminds us all, ‘Oh wait, it’s not this big monster. It’s this quiet, insidious monster, and it’s next door, and it’s across the street, and it’s in the next town.'” Also, it’s right here.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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