the real life story behind timothée chalamet’s 'beautiful boy'
We meet the real life father and son whose addiction memoirs inspired i-D cover star Timothee Chalamet's new film.
Nobody would blame David and Nic Sheff for wanting to escape the pain of the past, but for the last decade they’ve chosen to dwell on the horrors that nearly tore their family in two.
Before then, life couldn’t have been better. David was a successful journalist writing for The New York Times and Rolling Stone and living in Northern California. He had a wife, Karen, and two other young kids, Jasper and Daisy. Nic was his promising and friendly eldest boy. Until, in his early twenties, Nic left home for college and became addicted to methamphetamines, spending much of his early adulthood living in squats or on the streets; places his father couldn’t reach him. For almost 10 years, David had to navigate his life with the constant uncertainty of whether his own son was alive or dead looming over him.
Nic stole from his parents’ house and his kid brother’s savings to fund his habit. “Every time it would feel like my life was getting back on track, I’d reach back out to drugs again to try and make myself feel better. I would get completely trapped in that cycle,” Nic tells i-D, looking pensively over to his father, sat opposite, in their hotel suite. David, at that point, was struggling to see the beautiful boy he’d brought into the world in the addict he’d now become.
After several bouts of rehab and therapy (addicts rarely learn to live with the disease after one intervention), Nic thankfully pulled through, and the experiences he shared with his dad became the inspiration for their own heart-wrenching and vital autobiographies. After learning to control it, Nic wrote a first-person account of his own addiction titled Tweak; David, still shaken by the experience of trying to regain control of his family, published his perspective on the story too.
Their two tales were graciously intertwined for the highly anticipated film adaptation, which takes its name from David’s book, Beautiful Boy. Having garnered glowing reviews from critics already, praised for its direction under the watchful eye of Dutch arthouse wunderkind Felix van Groeningen, and its two Oscar-worthy performances from i-D cover star Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell, playing Nic and David respectively, Beautiful Boy bleakly captures the point at which family and addiction painfully intersect.
Regardless of who was playing David and Nic in the film, with this story, there’s an intrinsic emotional connection that David and Nic Sheff could never detach themselves from. Beautiful Boy, to the family that inspired it, was always going to be more than a movie, and Felix’s yearning to mirror the Sheff’s original family set-up was so dedicated that it bordered on eerie. “I was prepared to be able to disassociate from the movie by the time it reached the screen,” Nic admits, “but they photoshopped the actors onto our old photos in Steve’s office, and shot it all in the area I grew up. Even the car Timothée drove was exactly the same as mine.” But that vivid reconstruction also helps illustrate their brighter times too. “It all added to the memory that we made it through,” he smiles. “We’ve been forced to rehash everything in order to help us move on.”
“I was in tears,” David says, shaking his head and recalling the first time he sat down to watch the movie -- hundreds of miles away in Los Angeles without his son by his side. “I knew that these were actors on scream, but that was us. We lived that. Those emotions and that rollercoaster -- we were on it.” He turns to face his son. “I don’t think I’ve really talked about it to you, but the most disturbing one for me is the scene when the girl overdoses.” David is referring to a moment during Nic’s runaway phase, when he’d fallen in love with a girl who starting using methamphetamines with him. In the film, the love Nic has for the drug is so hard to differentiate from the love he has for her; all of the vital parts of his life somehow roll into one. “I’ve never said it -- and of course we were so lucky that Nic survived -- but I’ve also thought about the idea of Nic surviving and that girl not making it,” David adds, rubbing his palms together somewhat apprehensively. “He would have been living with the rest of his life that he was part of someone’s death.”
It's a reality that many people who will walk into the theatre to see the film -- many of them, Chalamet-obsessed millennials -- will, most likely, have never faced before. The young actor's stratospheric, new found fame will bring a whole new audience to this sombre arthouse movie about addiction and fractured family ties. His pulling power has the potential to enlighten, not just entertain.
“It was a really happy accident,” Nic says of Timothée’s casting. The shoot took place in that pleasant instant of stasis between Call Me By Your Name’s Sundance premiere and the moment international hysteria set in. Chalamania simply didn’t exist then. “The cool thing about Timothée is that he is an amazing role model for young people right now. You have a few of these teen heartthrob guys, but he’s so much more than that. There hasn’t been a star like him who can encourage young people to think -- maybe even in my lifetime.”
But these young fans flocking to see Beautiful Boy won’t just be met with a profound story of personal struggle. It is, above all, about family: the responsibilities we have to those we share blood with. “I hope that people get that,” David says. “It’s so easy to focus on the extremities of the story: the drug abuse and the overdoses, but really what lies at the heart of it is what it means to be a family and what it is to love a child and be a parent. How we survive hard times. Not even just drug use, all kinds of stuff: love, loss.”
“And that love is there,” Nic chimes in. “That’s a great thing about the movie. We saw these really dark times in our lives, but we saw the love our family share and the scenes around the dinner table too.” He looks to his dad, as if he’s searching for something in him, leaning in a little closer. “It’s our family,” he says, “but this is every family too.”
When that realisation hits you, the power of a movie like Beautiful Boy suddenly becomes apparent. It isn’t crying out for your sympathy, tugging at your heartstrings to make you feel bad for Nic and better about your sober self. This is a film that laces you into a pair of Nic’s shoes and shows you that life can take violent turns if we veer off the straight and narrow, only for a moment. Call it a cliche, but with this film it's true: watch it, go home, and hold the ones you love a little closer.
Beautiful Boy is in UK cinemas January 18.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.