Political Critique of Addiction and the American Healthcare System in Beautiful Boy

by Giada Nigro

  1. Introduction

In the art of filmmaking, there is a multitude of ways with which an issue may be depicted or represented. As such, filmmakers often attempt to shed light on important societal concerns that may be underrepresented in mainstream media, even amongst a film’s fictional plot. This is often exemplified in the portrayal of the fragmented American healthcare system, where filmmakers often struggle to distinctly communicate this message effectively in order to inform the audience. If filmmakers were to solely focus on American healthcare and government issues, society would not adhere to the concept, however; by depicting rippling effects on family issues and mental health, for instance, society is more prone to understanding and acting on the issue. 

Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy distinctly follows this sequence by implementing many cinematic techniques such as, silence, flashbacks, foreshadowing, and a lack of female dominance to depict the struggles that come along with drug addiction in addition to cultivating an understanding of a failed American healthcare system outlining government negligence. The story of Beautiful Boy is a portrayal of the character Nicolas Sheff, who seems to have his teenage life figured out through his passion for writing, drawing, and reading, however; things deteriorate when he begins experimenting with crystal meth, which spirals him into addiction. The film revolves around Nic’s struggle to grow as an independent teen always falling back on drugs as an escape to his teenage problems, cyclically spinning him in a repetitive cycle. This leaves his father, David Sheff, questioning who is to blame; causing his life to fall apart while engulfed in restoring normalcy with his son and family. 

Through Felix Van Groeningen’s implementation of cinematic techniques, Beautiful Boy thoroughly depicts Nic’s struggles of addiction living in the United States; specifically, the ongoing familial issues, mental health issues, and the struggle of a failed American healthcare system, all of which, ultimately outline the political issue of the negligence of their American government. To begin, this essay will touch upon the representation of idolized figures and domestic issues such as divorce in the film, that fuel and propel Nic’s addiction and its impact. Which will then outline the issue of mental health in the film and the importance of communication and assistance on the road to recovery. Finally, this essay will touch upon explaining a failed American healthcare system that is depicted as the final message of the film through title cards, that are ultimately implemented to portray a negligent American government. 

2. Divorce and familial issues as fuel to addiction

The film builds a spotlight on addiction and just how it affects everyone in Nic’s life, ruining the majority of his relationships, predominantly with his father. Although there is no clear reasoning behind the start of Nic’s addiction journey, there are many insightful instances that the viewer is able to recognize and assume to be the cause of Nic’s struggle with addiction, therefore; drawing evidence to political intent within the film. This is done through the use of cinematic elements such as flashbacks, silence, and the lack of impactful female figures in Nic’s life. The film draws emphasis to a strong connection between Nic and his father from the beginning which is maintained throughout. This leads to the understanding that there is a lack of female influence or presence in the protagonist’s life. In doing so, the political intent of divorce surfaces as Nic lives with his father and stepmother, however; lacks a strong maternal presence, who often falls into the background plot.  As the book projecting politics outlines, “ In most overtly political films, women tend to melt into the background of a supporting role. They perform the cliché “behind every great man stands a woman” (Haas 314).  This is the case with Beautiful Boy, as David plays the dominant paternal role who governs the rough patches of his son’s life. 

The aspect of divorce and the vast distances between father and mother figures can be one driving factor towards Nic’s drug dependency and cyclonic nature to fall back on drugs in the midst of trouble. Felix Van Groeningan quite frequently implements the cinematic technique of flashbacks in order to thoroughly depict the familial situation of divorce that ignites an unsettling feeling in Nicolas. The use of flashback was strictly implemented at distinct points of the movie, often jumping from Nic’s lowest of low points of overdose and then catapulting to the memories of a loving father who wants the best for young Nic.  This parallels the mood tendencies of a crystal meth addict, filled with highs and lows in a matter of seconds. Van Groeningan also implements distinct light differences in the two settings of the mother’s house in Los Angeles basking in an abundance of light and the father’s house imbued by chiaroscuro exemplifying David’s setting as a dark place filled with negativity and the mother’s as bright and opportunity-filled, which is reflective of Nic’s inner turmoil. This concept is also implemented in Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare of linking the extreme and the quotidian, “Rosi shows the idiom of the telephone call stretching from emergencies to love, extreme moments of living and dying rhymed with quotidian acts of care, distraction, and attention” (Wilson 19), which is exactly the same sense the flashbacks impose by quickly cutting between extremism and serenity. Rosi often outlines silence as a major form of communication as well, which is first introduced in flashback as David states “Can I have a hug? No? Why not? Are you mad at me? Cause you have to go?” (Beautiful Boy 00:58:47). Through this scene, there is silence from the child, effectively displaying the emotions felt about the separation of parents in his life. Therefore, the use of flashbacks, silence, and a dominant, idolized father figure come together to depict the political aspect of divorce and the correlation that may have to Nic’s addiction.

3. Mental Health and Lack of Communication Lead to Relationship Breakdowns

 Along Nic’s addiction journey, mental health plays a tremendous role in each scene and often dictates his unstable nature and failed relationships. This displays how his struggle with addiction also affects every relationship surrounding him. David is determined to find a solution to the battle and goes to extreme lengths in order to find out how to help. He finds himself often researching Nic’s affliction in order to navigate the unknown territory of drug addiction, however; ultimately deteriorating his own mental health coincidingly.

Van Groeningen uses the cinematic elements of foreshadowing and repetition to emphasize the extent of David’s attempt to understand his son’s condition and the hindered relationship that is continually being dissected. As David states in the very first scene,

“There are moments that I look at him, this kid that I raised who I thought that I knew inside and out, and I wonder who he is? He’s been doing all sorts of drugs…I just want to know all that I can about all of it. Know your enemies right? So my two big questions are, what is it doing to him and what can I do to help him?” (Beautiful Boy 00:01:08). The film begins with outlining a prominent issue of hindered relationship through drug addiction and displays the father’s vulnerability or deteriorated mental state in wanting to help, going through methods of research, however; never satisfied with an answer that works. Upon analyzing research, the father-son duo must ultimately learn to communicate effectively, which is often done in silence. This brings about the political theme of the importance of communication, listening, and the power of silence. The concept which is thoroughly outlined in Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare, “Listening in his films, is rich with the realization that the voice may not be heard, the listener may be unable to hear, and the story may be too dense, too unspeakable to be relayed. Silence at moments is more expressive or is all that is left” (Wilson 15). The failed familial relationships in the film stem from the lack of proper communication and the need to be heard. Nic’s father often puts up a front to remain strong and supportive towards his son, while he suffers mentally.  As per the article Mental illness and addictions, “The family may feel the need to be ‘strong’ for the individual as the individual’s experiences appear so much more difficult at this time, yet the idea of being strong for long periods of time can be exhausting and lead to relationship breakdowns” (Kean 27). This is the case with David as he navigates through the broken relationship with his son.

Through this Felix is able to display the political intent of broken relationships that come alongside addiction and the political theme outlining the importance of communication; the need to be heard. “Films function as narratives and are structured by social relationships and as we have seen addicts also are surrounded with other people whose feelings and thoughts are affected by the addictive behaviour, even if the addict’s desire is solitary and a mystery to outsiders” (Sulkunen 556). Therefore; the film takes a turn in displaying the rippling negative effect on relationships within Nic’s social circle, almost to the point of no return, however; contradicts this notion with a balance of hopefulness and disappointment by the use of repetition, foreshadowing, and communication, to ultimately bring about a rather untraditional, desired ending, that rekindles all ties to Nic’s reality.

4.  A Depiction of a Failed American Healthcare System and its Effects on the Protagonist

During the course of the film, a deciding factor as to the breakdown of family relations and struggles is money or the lack thereof, which presents the film’s political intent.  The entirety of the film revolves around money in various ways, whether it be treatment or Nic’s venture to obtain money for his drugs.  Money dictates the fine line between trust in the father, son relationship and is often the cause of the character’s peril in the journey, initiating signs of relapse and mental health deterioration. The effects can be best seen in the ending sequence where all hope is lost by David as he puts a halt to spending both money and time towards fixing his son. Van Groeningen uses techniques of close up shots to emphasize emotional distress in the eyes of both characters at this moment, and fast-paced cutting to ignite tension and despair associated with the act of letting go. Through this, the political intent depicting a failed American healthcare system is displayed. Oftentimes money is the main contributing factor as to whether or not issues can be fixed. Nearing the end of the film Nic discusses his understanding of addiction, “I went to a couple of rehabs, a detox… But it never clicked. Until one day I woke up in a hospital and someone asked me, what’s your problem? I said I’m an alcoholic and an addict and he said no that’s how you’ve been treating your problem” (Beautiful Boy 01:03:48). This illuminates the problems Nic and his family had in regards to the healthcare system that caused a spiral of issues involving the mental health of everyone around Nic.

The message of the negligence by the American government is effectively brought to the viewer’s attention in the ending sequence through the use of title cards that reveal the underlying issue of the film’s entirety. As the screen reads, “Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. While addiction treatment is massively under-funded and under-regulated, there are those working tirelessly in all communities to combat this epidemic. The help is out there- for those struggling with the disease, their loved ones, and for those who grieve” (Beautiful Boy 01:49:58). This thoroughly depicts the political content of the film that is related to drug addiction and the political intent of displaying the lack of assistance for all parties involved and suffering. 

As per an article about the healthcare system in the US that states, “The huge cost related to healthcare would make you think that it is strictly dependent on economics, but in reality, the major player in politics as “the” political institution decides how to spend the budget” (Anderlini 2). This makes it nearly impossible for families to gain the necessary assistance. Films often struggle with the effort to bring this situation to mainstream media and attempt to inform the audience without making the film overtly political, however; through the use of political intent and implementing title cards of information, Van Groeningen depicts the message emphatically. This concept relates to the film Sicko which “Fills the void left by mainstream media…by showing why profit-making must be removed from the health care system in order to achieve genuine, universal health care in the United States” (Chang 412). Therefore, through cinematic elements such as title cards, Beautiful Boy depicts the relevant issue of a failed American healthcare system and the ways that it affects not only Nic but all who are in relation to him, ultimately emphasizing negligence by the American government. 

5. Conclusion

Healthcare is one of the most important societal provisions in life. Health is a number one priority throughout the world, however; the United States along with mainstream media seems to keep this significant issue on the backburner neglecting to acknowledge the problem that the lack of government funding brings to the American public. Felix Van Groeningen effectively uses cinematic techniques such as flashbacks, silence, title cards, foreshadowing, and repetition, which outline the fast pace, and intense fragility of Nic’s life as a drug addict, often flipping to alternate extremes of life or death in a matter of seconds. This film places a central focus on the social environment, making it possible to incorporate a myopically distinct view of problems. In so doing, Beautiful Boy is able to increase the understanding of how drug addiction is often handled among the American people, affecting all relationships of family and friends in the circle of the abuser. Therefore, through the use of cinematic elements, political content, and intent, Beautiful Boy is able to accurately depict Nic’s journey with the struggle of addiction while surfacing linked problems such as familial issues and a failed American healthcare system that emphasizes the political theme of negligence from the American government.

Works Cited

Anderlini, Deanna. “The United States Health Care System is Sick: From Adam Smith to Overspecialization.” Curēus (Palo Alto, CA), vol. 10, no. 5, 05/31/2018, e2720-e2720, doi:10.7759/cureus.2720.

Chang, Tracy F. H., and Marc T. Cryer. “‘Popcorn and Politics’: Teaching Politics through Film.” Labor Studies Journal, vol. 34, no. 3, Sept. 2009, pp. 408–414, doi:10.1177/0160449X08322764.

Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central,https://ebookcentra-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/detail.action?docID=201120

Kean, Jessica. “Mental Illness and Addictions: Our Responsibility to Support the Family.” Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, vol. 21, no. 3, 07/17/2017, pp. 26-32, doi:10.11157/anzswj-vol21iss3id272.

Sulkunen, Pekka. “Images of Addiction: Representations of Addictions in Films.” Addiction Research & Theory, vol. 15, no. 6, Jan. 2007, pp. 543–559, doi:10.1080/1606635070165 1255.

Van Groeningen, Felix, director. Beautiful Boy. Plan B Entertainment, 2018.

Wilson, Emma. “Telephone Calls in Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare, 2016).” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media no. 17, 2019, pp. 12–23 doi:https://doi.org/10.33178/alpha.18.02