Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Talent: Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carrell
Released: 18 January
It’s no doubt an exhausting, Herculean task to parent someone addicted to hard drugs, the repetitiveness of each relapse rendering you increasingly more hopeless, before having to rally your efforts to somehow believe in change once more. Still, there’s no reason why a film depicting said events need feel that way too.
Based on two memoirs from both father and son – this might go some way to explain the awkward splitting of perspectives – Van Groeningen’s English language debut covers the several years in which Nic Sheff was addicted to Crystal Meth, while his embattled father, New York Times Writer, David Sheff, tried to help him, soon learning that one can’t simply cajole a junkie into getting clean. At one point, when Nic escapes from a rehab facility, a despairing David is told ‘relapse is part of recovery.’
It sounds like buzz speak, but, pretty soon, we the audience are going to learn just how true this is. And so things promise to be better, and then don’t, and promise to be better again, and then don’t, and promise…You get the picture: it has a numbing effect.
Some formal ingenuity is needed to offset this wearing grimness. Van Groeningen does try to make things less of a slog, fracturing the linearity of his narrative: there’s that trick where we revisit the first scene half way through the film; pained, addled father/son exchanges are juxtaposed with more benevolent ones from the past; a café scene where Nic tries to wheedle cash from David triggers a cloying memory between them in the same café. Van Groeningen has clearly been keeping a close eye on the work of Jean-Marc Vallée, whose recent series Sharp Objects must rank as one of the best ever visual representations of memory, but he’s not nearly as good at it. No matter how much narrative trickery and slick editing he attempts, Van Groeningen can’t make viewing this overlong film any less of a Sisyphean drag. And though this film is bleak, it’s also far too sanitised, not willing to get too scuzzy when it comes to the drug taking. We very rarely take a hard look at a scene, instead we are bombarded by musical driven montages that gloss over the pain instead of reinforcing it.
And yes, sure, there’s some stirring performances: Timothée Chalamet is kind of a revelation, providing the film with some of the grit and realism it lacks in other areas. He’s a performer of enormous honesty and vulnerability, as proven in last year’s rather beautiful Call Me By Your Name (a film where characters were multifaceted). Any engagement we feel is all thanks to Chalamet, despite the narratives weird coyness about the details of his addiction.
Carrell, at least during the quieter moments, is decent, despite reminding this reviewer in his more nasally agitated moments a bit too much of Brick from Anchorman. He’s good at being quietly helpless as he wonders what he may have done wrong.
To the film’s credit, it avoids being a victim narrative. No misparenting is tritely wheeled out as an explanation for the downward spiral of this once promising youth, with the exception of one thoughtful scene before Nic’s descent where David reluctantly shares a spliff with his son (hardly a hangable offence). If you end up seeing this, Chalamet might just make it worth it.
Words: Rory Kiberd
Illustration: Graham Corcoran