ON A QUIET stretch of beach in Northern California, a father takes his son surfing. Bodies flat against their boards, they paddle away from shore. As the waves grow bigger the boy, forging ahead on his own, disappears behind a curtain of water. Then, just as the father begins to panic, the boy emerges, triumphant, riding a wave back to him.
The scene, which arrives early in Belgian director Felix van Groeningen’s English-language debut, Beautiful Boy—co-written with Luke Davies—casts a long shadow over the rest of the film. Adapted from a pair of best-selling memoirs by a father and son, David and Nic Sheff, the story recounts the painful transformation of one family grappling with drug addiction. David, a well-meaning journalist played by Steve Carell, has always been close to his son Nic (Timothée Chalamet), but as Nic begins experimenting with drugs, eventually spiraling into a full-blown addiction to crystal meth, David is forced to question just how well he knows his boy, where he went wrong and how he can get him back.
Beautiful Boy—produced by Plan B Entertainment (Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave) and shot over 40 days in Los Angeles and San Francisco—has a nonlinear structure, with devastating episodes that reveal the extent of Nic’s dependency (“It takes the world from black-and-white to Technicolor , ” he says of crystal meth) played against sweeter moments between father and son. The film comes as drug addiction remains a national pandemic, but while it poignantly humanizes a difficult issue, it’s not on a mission. Its appeal lies in more universal preoccupations: what it means to be a family, the conflicting impulses in any parent to both protect their children and set them free, and the search for wholeness and identity.
Last month, van Groeningen, Carell and Chalamet reunited for the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and for their first group interview about the project. The mood in the room was playful and tender as everyone greeted each other with hugs. While they sat for their portraits, fiery R&B tracks floated down from a sound system; at times, struggling to sustain serious, camera-ready expressions, the trio burst into fits of laughter. Were there similar moments of levity on the set of Beautiful Boy, despite the grave subject matter?
“Oh, sure,” Carell says. “We wanted to honor the material, but we actually had a lot of fun, too. Because that’s part of life. Even within the darkest moments.”
Thomas Gebremedhin: This is a heartbreaking movie. How do you prepare for something like this?
Felix van Groeningen: I’ve touched on the subject [drugs] in my other films, but in a very different way. So I went to Al-Anon and AA meetings. I visited rehab centers. But, obviously, David and Nic were the biggest source of information for me. Getting the details felt important, and so my bibles were the memoirs.
Steve Carell: Being a father really gave context to my approach. Specifically, my love for my own children gave context to how I was approaching this guy, which isn’t too far from how I would imagine trying to navigate this experience if it was something that fell into my life. A week before we started shooting, my son, who was 11 or 12 at the time, out of the blue asked whether marijuana is a gateway drug. This was on the way home from school; it’s clearly something that they’d been discussing. We’d had vague conversations about the dangers of drugs, but not a more adult conversation about it. It’s terrifying on even such a simple level having that discussion. I didn’t want to make a wrong turn. I assume David went through many of the same things, wanting to do everything right but realizing there is no right or wrong path.
Timothée Chalamet: For me, the first thing to pull from is the experience of being a son, a son in a family, and having a great relationship with my father. There is a recognizable physical context to that. From a hundred feet away you can tell by the way people hug whether they’re family.
TG: I want to touch on that father-son dynamic. The chemistry between you two is so apparent in the film. How do you create that connection off-camera?
SC: I don’t think you do. I don’t think it’s something you consciously generate. I don’t want to speak for Timmy, but we immediately liked each other. We immediately felt a connection. I never felt there was an acting exercise that we were using to try to feel more connected. In Timothée I saw an incredible, soulful, generous person. I liked him enormously from day one. And since I’m exactly the same kind of person, I expected him to feel the same about me. [Laughter] But it was very natural.
TC: I feel so immensely filled with gratitude that I have Steve and Felix and other people that I’ve been able to work with at a young age that have been, I don’t want to say paternal towards me, but it’s a form of that, and I…. [Felix gets up to pour himself water] As he’s leaving!
SC: [Laughing] Felix doesn’t feel the same way.
FVG: I was so happy we took two weeks to rehearse. I always do it. It gave us time to know each other. I was very nervous in the beginning, and it gave me time to calm down and to be myself. English isn’t my first language and, I mean, I’m working with movie stars! I needed that time. But as Steve said, it wasn’t like we were artificially getting there.
TC: I was very soothed by Steve’s warmth and kindness—
SC: Keep going.
TC: But really, I was and am a huge admirer of Steve’s work, and I knew this was going to be a bridge for me to cross. It was good for me to realize upfront, OK, that’s going to be a hurdle, especially [since we’re playing] father and son. I needed to get it out of my head.
TG: What were the most challenging scenes for you to film?
‘ The greatest gift I got from Nic was the confidence to be Nic. I felt an understanding. ’
TC: I found the sequences on the phone challenging. It’s the nature of the movie that those phone calls are emotional climaxes. And generally, as an exercise, phone calls are challenging as an actor because you don’t typically have the other person there with you. So I was very grateful that each time there was something on the phone, whether it was Andre Royo [who plays Nic’s AA sponsor, Spencer] or Steve, we were always there for each other.
SC: For me, it was when the character of David makes choices that would be difficult for me, or any father, to make. There’s a sticking point in your subconscious, maybe, about how you would handle a situation. By his own admission, David makes tough choices, and sometimes as an actor, or just a human being, you evaluate what those choices are. Sometimes they conflicted with what I imagined I would do, but ultimately I realized it’s probably what I would do. Making that shift was interesting to me.
TG: Right, there are several forks in the road for both David and Nic throughout the movie, but the scene that felt critical to me is when David has to establish some kind of boundary with Nic.
SC: It was a terrifying scene. A moment any parent would dread. It’s hard to even imagine getting to that point, where you have to make that kind of choice while still desperately loving your child. The whole thing is terrifying and tragic and common. That’s the other thing—every day while we were shooting this, if any of us mentioned to other people what we were working on, the stories and personal connections were a bit overwhelming.
TG: Well, last year was the deadliest on record for overdoses.
TC: Yeah, more than car crashes.
TG: This isn’t a preachy film, but how do you hope it will play a part in that discussion?
FVG: I think it’s about giving people a face and a voice. I hope this film gives insight into how complex [addiction] is. A lot of movies touch upon it from just one side. But there’s something unique about [Beautiful Boy]. It’s two points of view of the same story.
TG: When you went back home to your families after a day on set, were you able to leave work at work?
TC: Certainly in any film, whether it’s your relationship to the characters or people or the context of environments, it naturally blends with your experience. It would be dramatic to say that there was no escaping it, and yet we were in it—we shot for 40 days or something, and I just kept thinking, Keep moving, keep going.
SC: This one was hard to leave on set. Every night I came home and hugged my kids a little tighter. My wife and I would talk every night about what we shot that day and how it felt and just the vibe. It didn’t feel like a job. We had to be invested in this because, beyond the fact that it’s a harrowing and relevant story, it’s true. These are real people. I definitely brought it home.
TG: On a lighter topic, there’s the film’s soundtrack: Nirvana, Neil Young, Fiddler on the Roof. It’s all over the place. Felix, how does music inform the story? And Steve and Timothée, as actors, how did you use music to creatively build out these roles?
FVG: The idea came from the books. Music was so important to David and Nic. There’s something beautiful about how it unites them. David mentions in his book a lot of songs that he can’t listen to anymore. So we put some of those songs in the movie. At some point my editor [Nico Leunen] and I wanted to use a classic film score together with songs, but then [Leunen] came up with the idea to drop the score and just use the songs. It made us take a risk.
SC: It’s a language that David and Nic used to speak to each other. As the addiction sets in, their relationship becomes frayed and that language does as well. Music is David’s bread and butter; these are the people he interviews. And he incorporates his son into that world at an early age—it’s both of their worlds.
‘ This one was hard to leave on set. Every night I came home and hugged my kids a little tighter. ’
TC: Yeah, music was a big part to Nic’s character. I remember we were shooting on the campus of USC, and we got into trouble because my portable speaker was playing “Heart-Shaped Box” too loudly. For Nic it was Nirvana; I was listening to Eminem when I was 5 or 6 years old, and it did feel important. It’s an effect of growing up in America, or the world, in a digital, consumerist age, that you’re communicated these messages of self-destruction and alienation.
TG: Timothée, you’ve played coming-of-age roles before, most notably as Elio in Call Me By Your Name. Elio is different from Nic, but they’re also both struggling with their identity. Did you take anything from that role and put it into this one?
TC: That’s a really good question. If there’s a through line it’s the immediacy and the urgency, the moment-to-moment visceral nature of what it is to be young. For Elio that’s a life circumstance that all of us should be so fortunate to go through, to fall in love, but also he’s coming to terms with his sexuality. For Nic, it’s facing this goliath of an obstacle, not only addiction but to one of the most powerful substances known to man.
TG: Did David and Nic give you all any advice?
SC: I didn’t meet Nic until we were shooting, but I met with David. He couldn’t have been more gracious. I think [he’s] very brave to even allow this movie to be made. There’s an incredible trust that he put into Felix and everyone involved that we’d get it at least marginally right. But he took a very hands-off approach with me.
TC: I went out with Nic and [his sister] Daisy to eat, and it was just as Steve said, the greatest gift I got from Nic was the confidence to be Nic. I felt an understanding. I think they understood our biggest goal and mission was to get their story right.
FVG: But just in the authenticity and in the heart of it—we didn’t have an obligation to it. It’s not a biopic in that sense, and that’s an advantage, I guess.
TG: Steve, you’re also playing Donald Rumsfeld in Backseat and Mark Hogancamp in Marwen—what’s different about playing a real, living person as opposed to a fictional character?
SC: A fictional character leaves much more to the imagination in terms of the performance and development and backstory. One is complete invention, and the other is completely tethered to the real world. It’s not easier or harder to portray either. I’m really excited that David and Nic [are attending the premiere]. From time to time I would talk to David and ask, “How surreal does this feel to you?” There was one day we were doing a scene on the beach, and David and [his wife] Karen [Barbour] came to visit. It was a simple scene, nothing overly dramatic, but David was elated. He was so full of emotion. I could tell that it really hit him.
TG: What do you ultimately hope this movie communicates? What do you think the lasting impression will be?
FVG: It’s a harrowing story, but it’s a beautiful family. To see all of this happen in a family where there’s so much love and understanding makes it even more harrowing, maybe, but it’s a family that believes in unconditional love, and they use that as a way out.
TG: That’s a great note to end on. I do have one last question though, unrelated to the movie. Timothée, have you seen the Instagram account @chalametinart?
TC: Yes! [Laughs]
FVG: What is that?
TG: It’s an Instagram account where they photoshop Timothée into classic paintings.
FVG: Oh, yeah! Wasn’t there an account about just his hair, too?
SC: [Looking at @chalametinart on a phone] Oh, it’s beautiful. [To Timothée] Well, you have your selection of Christmas cards now. •