This truth about the path out of drug addiction is said early in this movie and again and again as a father and son share the heartbreak and pain of the son’s personal struggle.
The story is a true one and drawn from the first-person books by David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his son, Nic Sheff, (Timothée Chalamet.)
When the film begins, Nic is a successful, happy high schooler with a doting father who understands that his son smokes marijuana. What the dad is surprised to learn, however, is that Nic has sampled ecstasy, cocaine and methamphetamine, and that he likes all of them, particularly the last one.
Around this time, David suggests that he and his son go surfing near their home, apparently in one of the coastal towns of Marin County, north of San Francisco.
They paddle out into the water. David is submerged briefly, and when he resurfaces, he looks for his son. After a moment, Nic appears, standing on his board, navigating beautifully across a long, long wave.
The scene suggests the joy of seeing a child triumph and sets up the contrast of the rest of the story.
Nick tells his parents this: “When I tried it (crystal meth and eventually heroin as well), I felt so much better than I ever had. So I just kept doing it.”
David mobilizes, getting treatment for his son and taking him to a Narcotics Anonymous group, where we hear the “relapse” theme for the first time.
And so things continue. Nic the person becomes a hostage to his need for dopamine highs. He goes away and comes back again and again. David keeps trying to find his son and to talk to him — but cannot keep his son close and cannot change him. Nic’s emotional states range from denial to anger to lying to regret to seeming despair.
The tense father-son interactions, while played beautifully, become almost claustrophobic and have the likely unintended effect of minimizing the effect on the rest of the family, including Nic’s young step-siblings, his stepmother (Maura Tierney) and his mother (Amy Ryan), who has moved to Los Angeles.
After seeing the movie, I read a bit about the actual Nic. In one book passage, as he was handcuffed and arrested in front of his home, his small stepbrother ran out and tried to make the police officer set Nic free. I would have liked to have seen this scene in the movie, instead of just the worried moms’ faces. I know that such trauma radiates through families and even out to long-ago friends.
Long story short, this a grim entertainment but one for our moment. It may function, as David’s and Nic’s books do, as an offer of hope and fellowship to others in similar situations. The truth is this: It is easy to surrender yourself to addiction, but breaking free is extremely difficult and a lifelong struggle.
The final credits acknowledge that Nic has been clean for some years now. Long may he thrive.