Navigating the Dilemma of Accuracy: The Significance of Truth in Portrayals of Addiction, with film Beautiful Boy

Arts & Culture

Maybe casting America’s “it boy,” Timothée Chalamet, as a meth addict in Beautiful Boy was the first wrong turn this film took; or maybe, the reality of being a meth addict is just not as enchanting as the directors thought. Viewers who walked into this film hoping to be enchanted by the charm and star-power of Chalamet, instead left disenchanted by the brutal reality of drug addiction. Ultimately, it is nearly impossible to have the happy ending many viewers want when accurately portraying addiction. Many of us believe Hollywood's obsession with accuracy is crucial to successful storytelling, but this approach instead alienates viewers by presenting a barrier to the emotional engagement necessary for a deeper comprehension of issues like addiction. Thus, the challenge of accuracy in addiction portrayal lies in navigating the delicate balance between truth and emotional connection; An excessive commitment to accuracy may post challenges in eliciting empathy, emphasizing the paradoxical role of accuracy in enacting emotional resonance. 

While accuracy is often seen as paramount in portraying sensitive subjects like addiction, sometimes too much truth is hard to swallow for the average viewer. In other words, excessive focus on truth, as seen in Beautiful Boy, becomes a double-edged sword. Upon viewing, some viewers found the film too realistic, making it challenging to engage with when there is no happy ending. The pursuit of accuracy inadvertently interferes with the emotional resonance necessary for audience connection. A crucial moment highlighting this severed connection occurs when a commendable stretch of sobriety comes to an end, and Chalamet's character succumbs to relapse. This descent reaches its nadir as he intrudes into his family home, resorting to theft from his own kin to fund his insatiable need for more meth. This turning point results in a significant erosion of hope, respect, and empathy for Chalamet's character. 

That event is nothing short of accurate. 

To break down the accuracy of this crucial scene, addicts are often left doing unthinkable things to obtain money for whatever substance they desire. Chalamet was only doing what would most likely happen once his father said no to giving him money, which was getting money the only other way he knew how - theft. The film accurately displays how addiction overrides freewill and any sense of morality, overall infantilizing the addict and leaving viewers simply mad at Chalamet’s character (Racine). The expectations viewers had for this movie, expectations bolstered specifically by the scenes leading up to this one, was that Chalamet’s sobriety would provide the gasp of air the audience needed; that he would return to school and live a happy, beautiful life. His family would find peace and maybe we would learn a few things about how to encounter someone suffering with an addiction. But the cherry on top was making viewers think exactly that, right before the following scene that makes them realize that is not even close to what happens. The relapse. As a result, viewers are left with no choice but to give up on any new wave of sobriety lasting, and finally knowing it would all one day come crashing down once again.  As a result, the rest of the film was no more than a discouraging waiting (and praying) game– the harsh truth of knowing someone who has an addiction. 

Conventional thinking suggests that accuracy enhances understanding, but an overwhelming commitment to truth can create a barrier to empathy. Watching the family’s efforts fade, the trauma repeat, and then the family accept their reality would elicit a viewer to feeling sympathetic. Although viewers may have been sad about the situation, they did not grant empathy to the family in the movie because they did not accept the storyline as the family had to. The accuracy is to blame for this. The irony of this entire argument is that the viewer's reaction to the movie parallels the public’s reaction to addiction itself. It is easier to avoid the sad truths of addition. 

 Is it that we associate drugs with criminals? A story that humanizes an addict is hard to accept and digest when viewers have been associating addiction with criminality. And if they have not been associating them with criminality, there is still the stigma that addicts are moral failures. This can go as far as a scene eliciting such hopelessness instead of empathy that the idea of addicts being moral failures is further enforced. This bled into another issue rooted in the film’s obsession with accuracy. Chalament’s character was fortunate enough to have all the familial support, financial funds, and overall resources to get better yet still struggled tremendously. This accurate portrayal of addiction being such an overtaking disease regardless of the extended helping hands discouraged the viewers of further empathy. But, it truly was a powerful point to make; addiction can happen to anyone. 

The accuracy of the movie rivals real life addiction. As a fundraising fellow for Taco Inc, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to combating overdose with neutral and neuroscience-backed education, my expertise lies in understanding the intricate intersections of addiction and its societal implications. This work equipped me with a unique perspective of the nuances of addiction portrayal, and the film’s display of the paradoxical relationship between accuracy and emotional connection in cinematic portrayals of addiction. Therefore, I have a special insight into the discourse of addiction. The fun thing about having seen Beautiful Boy with people who do not have this special insight was I got a firsthand glimpse into the let down of this movie. These comments mimicked the ones pulled from Google such as, “Drove home thinking that I could have waited until the movie was available nearby, instead of making a 45-minute drive to a select theatre hoping to see Chalamet mesmerize me again as he did in Call Me By Your Name.” (Zaldivar). Or:

This film is a bit like complicated sauce.  All the fine ingredients are included but the darn thing keeps coming apart.  It won't blend to become a satisfying whole. Perhaps it would have worked better if it used a stricter chronological sequence of events rather than shifting us backward and forward. It's a portrait of the sickness of addiction, which also makes it a sad film.   But I have to say, it's accurate in its constant disappointments. (Phil). 

All showing the disenchanting effect of an obsession with accuracy.  

The ridicule of the second comment was the author’s desire for a more “satisfying whole” and less of “shifting us backward and forward.” Wanting more of a satisfying whole is just another way of writing that his expectations were more of a happy ending that allows him to leave with the mindset that addiction is more simple than it is. But not wanting to be shifted backwards and forwards is more of a debatable point. If the author is referring to the few glimpses we get into the addict’s childhood, I am interested to hear what that would do to the already weak emotional connection viewers have. The context of childhood was nothing but humanizing. Or the author’s words could have been an even harsher way of saying that he did not enjoy the relapses that accurately depict addiction. Chalamet’s character goes back and forth from health and motivation to desperate and sickly. If that is the case, the author rejected the truth of the movie and was left feeling hopeless and disappointed; further demonstrating that accuracy disenchants viewers. 

While my critique highlights the risks of obsessing over accuracy, it could be argued that by confronting audiences with the harsh realities of addiction, the film challenges societal stigmas. The argument that excessive truth can hinder emotional connection assumes that audiences seek escapism over substance. However, Beautiful Boy could invite viewers to grapple with certain complexities. This approach reinforces the message that addiction is not a linear narrative with a guaranteed "happy ending." I believe that the movie, and the scene I called into question of relapse, does not infantilize the addict but humanizes them. Additionally, the film's refusal to sugarcoat addiction’s impact offers a valuable step towards honest conversations about drug abuse and recovery. The disappointment some viewers felt reflects a societal discomfort with confronting addiction's realities. Its stark realism could act as a catalyst for change, urging a shift from avoidance to engagement. But all in all, without some inaccuracy for emotional connection the avoidance was only heightened. This could all have been achieved if there was that emotional connection to begin with, further proving the idea that obsession with accuracy is not a guaranteed ticket to success. 

Commitment to accuracy reveals a nuanced challenge: dissonance between depicting the harsh realities of addiction and maintaining an emotional connection with the audience. Accuracy can overshadow the narrative's ability to help viewers digest complex social issues. While reflective on reality, there might be more frustrations or disengagement rather than compassion. Accuracy can build barriers. Moreover, the audience's disenchantment, highlighted by firsthand observations and corroborated by reviews, underscores the disjuncture between the film's objectives and its reception. This disjuncture is emblematic of a larger societal reluctance to confront the grim truths of addiction, which raises questions about the role of film in societal discourse on drug abuse and its effects on families. While Beautiful Boy aims to demystify addiction, its execution inadvertently reinforces the very avoidance it seeks to overcome.

In conclusion, a more balanced approach that does not sacrifice emotional resonance for the sake of realism can prove more successful than obsessing over intense accuracy. Without weaving in the threads of empathy and understanding, accuracy alone is insufficient. This balance is not just crucial for storytelling success; it is essential for movies that aspire to illuminate and challenge the complexities of addiction. Only then can cinema truly fulfill its potential as a powerful medium for social change, education, and understanding. 


Hamilton, Leah et al. “Good Samaritan laws and overdose mortality in the United States in the fentanyl era.” The International journal on drug policy vol. 97 (2021): 103294. doi:10.1016/j.drugpo.2021.103294

Phil, Flippant. Review of Beautiful Boy, directed by Felix Van Groeningen. Google Reviews, [Feb. 2019].

Racine E, Sattler S, Escande A. Free will and the brain disease model of addiction: The not so seductive allure of neuroscience and its modest impact on the attribution of free will to people with an addiction. Frontiers in psychology. 2017;8:1850-1850. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01850

Zaldivar, Rakiro. Review of Beautiful Boy, directed by Felix Van Groeningen. Google Reviews, [Feb. 2019].