In one of the most emotional scenes in Beautiful Boy, Nic (Timothee Chalamet) meets his father, David (Steve Carell) in a San Francisco coffee shop. David is hoping to convince his son to get help for his drug addiction, but Nic refuses. He is only there to demand money from his father. "Who are you, Nic?" David asks with incredulity. "This is me, Dad," the pale and pained Nic responds. "This is who I am."
It's a heartbreaking scene for Nic, who is coming out as a drug addict to his dad. Yet as much as Beautiful Boy holds itself out as a bold and uncensored declaration about substance abuse and the toll it takes, it is also an obfuscation. In real life, Nic Sheff is a straight-identifying former meth addict who once engaged in sex work with men.
Guess which half of that narrative was left out of Beautiful Boy.
Directed by Felix Van Groeningen (Belgica), Beautiful Boy is based on Sheff's memoir, Tweak, as well as a book written by his father, David Sheff. Thus, Beautiful Boy weaves the experience of a young person with a debilitating drug addiction with the perspective of the family faced with helping him recover.
The resulting film is a portrait of a privileged young white man who finds his promising life spiraling out of control after he develops a dependence on meth. Through large periods in the production, Nic disappears to San Francisco, and there's little explanation as to how he makes money to fuel his addiction.
There are hints of the truth. Queerness exists on the periphery of Beautiful Boy. One of the first scenes shows Nic in his childhood room with a poster of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City over his bed. A letter from Keith Haring, a gay artist who died of an AIDS-related illness, is later seen pinned to a wall. And in one of Nic's support groups, a woman of color recounts how she recently lost her female partner to drug addiction.
In Beautiful Boy, the viewer does see the havoc that crystal meth can cause through Nic, who drops out of college and even steals money from his 7-year-old brother to fuel his fix. He goes through hopeful long stretches of sobriety only to tragically relapse, which, it is stressed in the film, is a part of the recovery process.
This is all well and fine. There are many straight white people dealing with drug addiction in the United States. Yet in erasing the period of his life in which Sheff was a sex worker, Beautiful Boy misses a valuable opportunity to shine a light on how meth has ravaged (and continues to disproportionately impact) the queer community. Shockingly, the film, which is set in the '90s, fails to mention HIV and AIDS, even as it shows painful scenes like its drug-addicted protagonist writhing on a filthy bathroom floor after injecting meth, his arm covered with infected track marks.
"After I finished writing my first book, I sent it around to a couple of people in my family just to make sure they were at least semi-okay with all the personal shit I was putting in there," he wrote. "And it's funny, you know, the one thing pretty much everyone agreed I should leave out of my book was the brief time I spent hustling in San Francisco and New York.
"Honestly, I'm not sure why the whole prostitution thing, above all the other fucked up shit I did (including stealing money from my seven-year-old brother) was the one thing everyone said I should keep to myself. Was it some kind of latent homophobia? Or maybe they worried that people would look at me like I was dirty or something. But why are people more uptight about prostitution than they are about shooting drugs? Is selling yourself more dirty or embarrassing than all the other dirty, embarrassing drug shit we do? Why? Because it is."
Sheff went on in this essay to reveal that he took money from men not only to make ends meet. In a time of his life when his drug addiction made him feel worthless, the act of selling his body made him feel like he had value and "feel good, or beautiful or important or whatever."
"Prostitution was something I wanted to do. That sounds crazy fucked up, but it's true," he wrote. "And when I was out there, you know, hustling, I'm telling you, a lot of the kids I met were just like me. They wanted to feel like I wanted to feel. They wanted to feel wanted. Because, after all, there is a certain pride in being owned."
"Getting high and prostitution really was like the same thing for me," he added. "They were almost indistinguishable from one another. And that's why I felt absolutely compelled to include it in my book."
Be it stigma or otherwise, Van Groeningen did not feel compelled to put this side of Sheff's experience in Beautiful Boy. The result is a story that feels incomplete -- and, at its heart, untrue. It is a missed opportunity to help the young boys and girls who, like Nic, misguidedly turn to drugs and sex work to feel beautiful -- and to show the lives of the queer people Nic interacted with who are also part of this vicious cycle. That it stars Chalamet, who is straight but was made famous by his Oscar-nominated gay role in Call Me by Your Name, adds further insult to injury.
This selective storytelling from Beautiful Boy cuts against the reason for making a film about drug addiction: namely, to explore its causes and shine a light on possible solutions. The news of the leaked memo regarding the Trump administration's erasure of transgender people should only further drive home the dangers of LGBTQ omission. Darkness on these issues will only worsen the epidemic. And that is the ugly truth.