The Devastating True Story Behind Beautiful Boy

Photo: Courtesy of IMDb.
In the trailer for Beautiful Boy, showing at London Film Festival 13th October and in cinemas in January, David (Steve Carrell) and Nicolas Sheff (Timotheé Chalamet) sit across from each other at a diner and sling weighty sentences at each other. At first, it seems like this is a regular, ol' fight about a son not living up to his father's expectations: "You're just embarrassed because I was this amazing thing, your special creation or something, and you don't like who I am now," Nicolas says. His father responds, wagging a finger: "This is not you, Nic."
But David and Nic are speaking in veiled language. In fact, what they're referring to is Nicolas' addiction to crystal meth. If, aside from Carrell and Chalamet's excellent acting, the interaction in Beautiful Boy seem particularly raw, then perhaps it's because the scene is based in reality: The characters are drawn on the real Nic Sheff and his father, David, who both left a paper trail about their experiences with addiction and recovery. In 2008, Nic and David both released memoirs about their years during Nic's addiction. Both memoirs — Beautiful Boy by David Sheff and Tweak by Nic Sheff — were used as source material for the movie, though the Sheffs were not involved in writing the movie.
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David's memoir, Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction, stemmed from a popular 2005 article he wrote for New York Magazine called "My Addicted Son." The unsentimental article captured just a tiny sliver of the harrowing cycle in which Nic and his parents, who divorced when he was four years old, were stuck – jumping from rehab to relapse, hope to devastation. The article technically ends on a hopeful note. Nic is sober and writing a children's book.
But in Sheff's memoir, we come to understand "My Addicted Son" ended on a high before another low. Months later, Nic and his girlfriend would go on a meth and speedball (an injected mix of heroin and cocaine) binge and end up on the streets. Beautiful Boy is about the "millions of treacherous moments" that come with being the parent of an addict, as David puts it in the book. “Anyone who has lived through it, or those who are now living through it, knows that caring about an addict is as complex and fraught and debilitating as addiction itself," Sheff writes.
In Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, Nic's first of two memoirs, Nic provides a stream-of-consciousness rendering of two years in his early twenties. Nic began experimenting with drugs at the age of 11, between extracurricular activities like water polo and days at his Bay Area school. "The world was really abrasive and overwhelming, and I felt really hopeless," Nic writes in Tweak."When I started drinking [alcohol], I couldn't stop." As he got older, he began using other drugs, like mushrooms, ecstasy, cocaine, and eventually, crystal meth. "The first time I did a line of crystal, it was like my whole world changed," Nic writes.
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Nic was only 23 when he wrote this first memoir — and it was a gritty one. "What shocked me the most was the volume and quantity of drugs that Nic was injecting into his body. It was hard for me to get through," David said of the book. Before the book was published, Nic sent the manuscript to his friends and family, ensuring they were comfortable with its contents. In a column for Fix, Nic recalls that everyone unanimously agreed he should remove the section about hustling for drug money in San Francisco. Nic, committed to providing an authentic account of those years, kept the section in. We All Fall Down, published in 2012, is a follow-up to Tweak, showing the daily life of a man who's sober, but very much haunted by addiction.
Essentially, everything seen in the movie Beautiful Boy — including the more gruesome aspects — was first recounted in the Sheffs' memoirs. Yes, Nic stole money from his seven-year-old brother. Yes, Nic almost lost his arm after a puncture wound became infected. Yes, Nic lived on the streets.
But he's also stayed clean, despite the low long-term success rates of meth addicts. Now in his 30s, Nic is in a different position than he is in Beautiful Boy. In 2011, Sheff married Jette Newell, an actress, model, and television writer. Like his parents, who are both renowned journalists, Nic has also become a writer. He writes YA horror novels and TV scripts.
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Nic often incorporates his life experience into his novels and scripts. For instance, when writing the first season of the Netflix show Thirteen Reasons Why, Nic argued for Hannah's suicide to be shown in full detail because of his own past suicide attempt. "When it came time to discuss the portrayal of the protagonist’s suicide in 13 Reasons Why, I of course immediately flashed on my own [attempt]. It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to show what an actual suicide really looks like — to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse," Sheff wrote in a Vanity Fair op-ed. Sheff said the "most irresponsible thing" would have been to omit Hannah's death scene entirely, though some viewers vehemently disagreed.
The Sheffs continue to be spokespeople for addiction and recovery — a role which has become more crucial as the country's opioid epidemic worsens. In 2013, David wrote the book Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, which argues that "addiction is a preventable, treatable disease, not a moral failing." Beautiful Boy the movie is another prong in the father and son's mission to change the conventional addiction narrative.
Beautiful Boy is in UK cinemas 18 January 2019
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