It’s tough for films like ‘Beautiful Boy’ and ‘Ben Is Back’ to portray addiction in its full scope, experts say


There’s a scene in the new film “Beautiful Boy” in which Steve Carell, playing a father checking his crystal meth-addicted son (Timothée Chalamet) into what looks like an expensive rehab facility, whips out a credit card to pay for the boy’s stay. It’s one of many moments when you realize that, at least in the movies, the ways in which affluent families and their less financially flush counterparts deal with drug addiction is worlds apart.

“Depictions of drug use among poorer people often revolve around chaotic, often violent street drug scenes involving heroin, crack and crystal meth,” says Harry Shapiro, author of “Shooting Stars: Drugs, Hollywood and the Movies.”

“Among poorer families, drug use is often more closely linked to poverty and deprivation, maybe also an income stream. And, of course, lack of access to treatment, usually presented as a very expensive rehab. With higher income groups,” he says, “the back story, where all material needs are taken care of, tends to do more with family dysfunction, divorce, emotional distance, kids for whatever reason feel they are out of place.”


“In most movies, addiction is more often a trope where the audience is meant to understand the addiction as the social cues around the person,” adds Emily Feinstein of the Center on Addiction, a New York-based nonprofit. “That relates to the drug and the class and race of the group. So you have the shocking narrative, in a movie like ‘Traffic’ (the 2000 film in which judge Michael Douglas’ daughter is freebasing cocaine) — how could people with money be reduced to this? How could someone with all this potential do all this crazy stuff?”

Movies about drugs tend to fall into three very broad categories: the crime flick, a la “The French Connection”; the “drugs in the ghetto” film, often interchangeable with crime movies, such as 1991’s “New Jack City” and 2007’s “American Gangster,” and the “people with money doing a lot of cocaine” drama, which ranges from “The Wolf of Wall Street” to “Clean and Sober” (a 1988 production with Michael Keaton as a cocaine-addicted real estate salesman) to “Traffic.”

Luke Davies, who wrote the “Beautiful Boy” screenplay and says he is a former heroin user, says in an email interview that “addiction is like a cyclone, it doesn’t play favorites. Money means there are moments when you can maneuver a problem in a certain direction, for a while. So [in ‘Beautiful Boy’ entering rehab] it’s less chaos for a moment. But those respites don’t make it any less horrific when the cyclone bears down again.”

No matter what the social class, most experts think the movies do a pretty poor job in portraying drug usage and addiction. One problem is time, says Shapiro. “Most films are no longer than two hours, and the film needs a central character. You only have time to see the outcomes of addiction, the dramatic injecting scenes and so on, and the narrative telescopes down to one of individual pathology.”

“Most movies fail to portray addiction as a disease,” adds Feinstein. “This is a disease that changes your brain, your personality. And you don’t often see relapse in the movies, and relapse is part of recovery.”

Davies, an Australian who wrote “Candy,” a 2006 film in which two young middle-class lovers (Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish) descend into heroin addiction, says most drug films consist of a “lineage of deeply embedded clichés. The ‘other’ is untrustworthy — foreigners, people of color, working-class lowlifes and the uneducated. The middle-class kids are just having a ‘rough trot.’ ”

In fact, if “Beautiful Boy” is any indication, middle-class and affluent kids seem to have a lot of advantages. Carell, who plays a very successful writer (the film is based on a true story), can not only afford to pay for rehab, but can fly across the country to take care of his son after he overdoses, and has the education and wherewithal to research addiction on the internet. Plus there is always a place to come home to (the same situation applies in “Ben Is Back,” opening in December, in which recovering addict Lucas Hedges returns to his middle-class home).

Overall, when films about addiction get it right, says Feinstein, “They are good at showing you how bad it can get, how it can damage your relationships, you can lose your job, lose your life.”

Good depictions, adds Davies, also show “the clash between a character’s good intentions and their compulsions.”

And yet, says Shapiro, “addiction is a highly complex physical/psychological/environmental social phenomenon, which films will always struggle to adequately explain, so we are often left with oversimplistic depictions.”

Which doesn’t mean the movies themselves as stories aren’t moving and compelling.