This article contains spoilers for the films “A Star Is Born” and “Beautiful Boy.”
From 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to 1996’s “Trainspotting,” the global film industry has been captivated by stories of excessive substance use and addiction for decades. But the ways in which narratives of addiction, and specifically, of rehabilitation, are actually shown on-screen has certainly evolved, from dramatic devices that lazily flesh out otherwise basic characters to authentic portrayals of characters who are experiencing or recovering from addiction — progress, setbacks and all.
It would be easy to go down the IMDb list of addiction films to examine the nuances of how these stories have been told. But we don’t have to look back so far, considering two films about addiction and rehabilitation are right in our rearview mirror.
One of the most fascinating dichotomies in the representation of addiction and rehabilitation on-screen in 2018 came from “Beautiful Boy” and “A Star Is Born.”
“Beautiful Boy,” based on the memoirs “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” by David Sheff and “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines” by Nic Sheff, presents a hauntingly poignant account of the role that addiction and rehabilitation can play in family relationships. Much of the film is told from the perspective of David (Steve Carell) as he witnesses his son Nic’s (Timothée Chalamet) struggle against addiction. And yet, the film refrains from bearing judgment or appearing distanced from Nic’s very real, extremely visceral experiences in his triumphs and failures in the recovery process.
One of the most powerful elements of the film is its honesty in portraying Nic’s journey through rehabilitation. Director Felix van Groeningen refrains from attributing Nic’s drug addiction to an external element in his life. The audience is never spoon-fed an explicit reason for Nic’s initial exposure to drugs or his frequent and ongoing relapses during the rehabilitation process; rather, we simply witness his circumstances.
After his first experience at rehab, Nic leaves his halfway house and relapses in the streets of San Francisco. When the clinic calls David, they tell him that relapse is part of the process of recovery — a crucial aspect of rehabilitation rarely seen. After this, Nic faces a number of setbacks, even after staying sober again for a longer period of time.
Even in the end, the film makes no pretense of there being a definite “happy ending” in Nic and David’s story. Instead, it acknowledges that, for the Sheff family and many other families that have battled addiction in their households, rehabilitation is a nonlinear, dynamic process.
This is the uncertain struggle of addiction often absent from the screen but vastly imperative to addiction narratives. Rehabilitation isn’t a cure-all for addiction. It’s a place for people who struggle to try and find the tools to stay sober, and it’s a continuous process. As Nic Sheff states in “Tweak,” once you are an addict, you are always an addict. That will always be a part of him, but it’s up to him whether he gives in to those urges.
While “Beautiful Boy” presents a pragmatic but still optimistic portrayal of addiction and rehabilitation, one of 2018’s biggest critical and commercial successes, “A Star Is Born,” takes an alternate approach — one that follows a more traditional Hollywood format in narrating an on-screen story of addiction.
In the newest rendition of the age-old romance, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a country music star, uses drugs and alcohol to combat greater, private traumas and struggles within his life. As he witnesses the rising musical success of his love interest, Ally (Lady Gaga), his initial enthusiasm, romance and support transform into disdain — a progression that parallels his own worsening drug and alcohol use and shocking public behavior.
The effort of “A Star Is Born” to tell an honest story about addiction in its smaller moments, such as when Ally comforts and reaffirms Jackson and his path to recovery, is laudable. But an unfortunate element of the script (especially in its fourth version) is that addiction is largely used as a romanticized, tragic plot device rather than as a genuine struggle that people — many of whom have likely seen the film — experience on a regular basis.
Though Jackson’s decision to end his life after a stint in rehab is an outcome that is unfortunately common, the fact that he makes this choice because he doesn’t want to hold Ally back detracts from the message that addiction itself is a disease, instead shifting the blame onto their relationship.
“Beautiful Boy” is a touching family drama and coming-of-age story, while “A Star Is Born” is a brilliantly acted and crafted romantic melodrama. And yet, their depictions of addiction and rehabilitation, which undoubtedly play key roles in the lives of the films’ protagonists, are starkly different.
Cinema seems to favor stories like “A Star Is Born” in which audiences can unrealistically pinpoint the exact cause of addiction, in which addiction has the specific purpose of driving the drama of the film rather than demonstrating a complex and systemic struggle.
It’s essential for the industry to shift toward films that acknowledge rehabilitation as a dynamic and unpredictable process and addiction as the focal topic of its own narrative, not a vehicle to create other drama. Regardless of whether or not the subjects behind these films are real, we need to see more stories of addiction that utilize their platforms to further the conversation regarding recovery.