Timothee Chalamet, 'Beautiful Boy' Author David Sheff Discuss Reality of Addiction at United Nations
The actor and writer were joined by 'Beautiful Boy' producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner for the Q&A hosted by the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime.
Since its release, Beautiful Boy — the real-life father-son story about drug abuse and the cycle of treatment, relapse and recovery — has sparked discussions about addiction. David Sheff, whose memoir of the same name served as the basis for the film, along with Timothee Chalamet, who plays David's son Nic, have not only traveled to places like St. Louis and Dallas to host discussions about addiction, but Sheff said the movie has "saved lives."
"People have written to me that they've gone into treatment, they've talked to their parents about their own drug problem, families have reconciled and so much of it has to do with the general filmmaking, but also, Timmy, there's not a moment in the film where you can't tell that Nic is in pain," Sheff, who's portrayed by Steve Carell, said at a screening of Beautiful Boy on Wednesday at the United Nations, hosted by the Office on Drugs and Crime.
In playing Nic — whose own memoir, Tweak: Growing Up On Methamphetamines, was also optioned for the film — Chalamet said the goal was "a raw and real portrait of what this could look like, minus any of the moral shaming or sensationalization on the tragic side," and "on the masochistic side, any glorification."
"I had a notebook for this movie that said, 'look for the light.' I felt like that was more where the movie found itself," Chalamet said. "You have movies like Christiane F., Heaven Knows What and Trainspotting that function as raw portrayals of addiction but that's not what the goal here was. And when I met Nic, I felt like all of the keys presented themselves because I didn't have to cross some huge bridge and be in pain or romanticize how I'm going to play a drug addict. Because meeting him, he's exactly how David describes him in his book. He's just a light, kindhearted, funny human being. And it made it easier because I felt like I wasn't playing a drug addict, I was playing a human who was addicted to drugs."
This, in a sense, is what Beautiful Boy is about — rather than "viewing addiction through the lens of morality," as Sheff said people so often do, the film doesn't focus on the use of drugs, but the reason behind the use. Applying this logic to the real-life recovery process, according to him, is critical.
"Our treatment system — if you can even call it a system — is a disaster. It's in complete disarray. We know that addiction is a disease, and yet when someone is sick, we don't even know where to start," Sheff said, adding that Nic has been sober for nine years now, but not before going through treatment 13 different times. "Thirteen treatments, I mean that sounds insane. We kept being told that that's just the nature of this disease. And some ways it is; that progressive tendency to relapse is real. But also I have to think, and I know that Nic feels, that if maybe he had gotten better treatment early — especially treatment that had diagnosed what Nic has talked about very openly, his depression and bipolar disorder — if we had learned that earlier and Nic had been treated, who knows. Maybe it wouldn't have been 13."
Simone Monasebian, director of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime, also stressed the need for better treatment. "It's clear that if you want to help countries get to grips with the opioid threat and other drug challenges, we need to vastly expand the availability of treatment, not stigmatize people who suffer from drug use disorders," she said, though the latter seems to be almost habitual for many.
"The truth is, we judge people who are addicted," Sheff said. "It's easy to forget that they are in enormous pain, so the last thing they need to be is shamed and to be punished more than they are already punishing themselves."
But Nic's breakthrough moment — both in the film and in real life — came after his father put his son's pain aside and refused to help him when like so many times before, he called out of desperation.
"The moment when I hung up the phone on Nic — just as Steve Carrell does in the movie — that is one of the things that is exactly the way it happened. I hung up the phone and I broke down," Sheff said. "Part of it, I was just so broken. I was so tired and so weary. And I'd been told over and over again by people in the rehab community, at family groups, and treatment centers, 'You have to let go. You have to let the person you love hit bottom.' And I did that."
However, Sheff said he considers himself lucky that his "tough love" worked on Nic, because that's definitely not always the case.
"I guess if there's one message that I worry about in the movie is that, somehow, we're communicating this idea that this is a good thing because it did work," he said. "But I hear from so many people who drew that line, who listened to the messages over and over again, and thought the person had to hit bottom, that they couldn't help them, that they had to close the door, hang up the phone, and practice tough love. So they did that, and then they heard the next day or soon after that their child didn't make it. So I feel like once we understand that this is a disease, that we don't want to let people hit bottom, we want to catch them as soon as we can."