Critics, commentators and audience members have been hailing filmmaker Felix Van Groeninen’s raw and multifaceted depiction of addiction in his newly released Beautiful Boy. Steve Carell plays an emotionally shattered father, David Sheff, desperately trying to wrest his son Nic (Timothée Chalamet) from the cruel clutches of crystal meth. It deserves the praise it has earned for challenging a long cinematic history of flawed, one-dimensional and inaccurate representations of addiction on screen. But it should be equally lauded for its moving and nuanced portrayal of fatherhood.
Dads in popular culture — television and advertising, in particular, but frequently enough in film too — range from doltish fools who struggle with the most basic forms of childcare to aloof, shadowy presences who are emotionally detached, to abusive monsters who do their children more harm than good.
Beautiful Boy doesn’t traffic in any of these destructive, tired old tropes. Instead it presents fatherhood as parenthood, nearly stripped of gender altogether, which makes it particularly powerful.
It’s never explained why, but in the film, David Sheff (Carell) was awarded full custody of his son Nic when he divorced his first wife, Vicki (Amy Ryan), so he’s his central parental figure, along with David’s second wife Karen (quietly but forcefully played by Maura Tierney). The two raise Nic from toddlerhood alongside two other children the couple eventually have. Through flashbacks, David remembers sweet moments he shared with Nic in his early youth, which are memorably absent of any gendered father-son activities (throwing a ball around) or conversations (about girls): In one scene, David is teaching Nic how to properly hold his newly born sibling in the hospital; in another they sit across from each other at a cafe making each other crack up with funny faces; in another they go surfing together in San Francisco, where they live; but perhaps the most moving exchange is when little Nic is getting on a plane to go visit his mother in Los Angeles and David says: “Do you know how much I love you? If you could put all the words in the English language together it wouldn’t express how much I love you. I love you more than everything.” “Everything?” Nic asks, “Everything,” David replies. Saying “everything” becomes a shorthand for how much they love each other when they greet one another throughout the film. When Nic becomes a drug addict, David doggedly follows his son through the rain and seedy streets, in and out of rehabs and hospitals, in and out of the offices of meth addiction specialists, across the state of California and back again over and over, trying to save Nic as he continually relapses.
When David finally realizes he’s enabling Nic, and refuses to allow him to come home, he hangs up the phone and sobs uncontrollably. It is a devastating portrait of the ravages of addiction and an incredibly moving portrayal of fatherhood.
Historically, says Erica Scharrer, Ph.D., a professor in the department of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, fathers are presented, especially on television “as bumbling, ineffectual and immature, almost like a child rather than a parental figure,” she says, citing her famous 2010 study, “Wise to Foolish: The Portrayal of the Sitcom Father, 1950s to 1990s,” which documented how fathers went from being distant but kindly authority figures who offered their children sound advice (ie. the Father Knows Best era) to buffoons who are frequently the butt of family jokes for their ineptitude (Home Improvement, Family Guy). Scharrer points out that this change is concurrent with women’s increased economic power and earning capacity outside the home.
Brad Harrington, Ed.D., a professor in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, says he’s starting to see better representations of fatherhood in popular culture, but is dismayed at how long fathers have been disparaged and dismissed on screens: “If we depicted women in the workplace today the way we depict fathers at home, people would be outraged.” The outrage hit a high note, in fact, in 2012 when fathers across the U.S. demanded that diaper brand Huggies pull a commercial that presented dads as too clueless and football-focused to properly watch their own children. They succeeded: The commercial was rethought and re-released with a dad-affirming message.
The truth is that pop culture’s doltish depictions of dads are antiquated. According to the Pew Research Center survey in 2015, 57 percent of American fathers described parenting as central to their identities, and in 2016, dads reported spending an average of eight hours a week on childcare, triple the amount in 1965. The Council on Contemporary Families, spearheaded by family historian Stephanie Coontz, reported a similar finding in 2015: Married fathers doubled their developmental care of children between 1965 to 2012 and tripled their daily physical care. Mothers, of course, still do the bulk of the work: The same Pew survey found that women do 27 percent more weekly childcare than fathers — 14 hours of work — and 53 percent of Americans still think women do a better job of caring for a new baby.
These enduring perceptions not only hurt fathers; they thwart the goals of feminism by over-saddling moms with the bulk of parenting responsibilities. “It reinforces this kind of idea that women are somehow ‘naturally’ better at parenting, which sets us back as women,” Scharrer says, “but it also sells men horribly short.”
“It sets false and low expectations for fathers,” Harrington adds, which is dangerous. Janice Kelly, Ed.D., an associate professor at Molloy College in New York who has conducted research on media representations of fatherhood, and the co-editor of Deconstructing Dad: Changing Images of Fathers in Popular Culture, offers a cautionary tale about the real-life effects of poor representations of fathers on screen: “The real reason I got into studying fatherhood and family studies,” she says, “is because a young man revealed to one of my classes that he was going to be a father, and I said: ‘What does that mean to you?’ And he said, with tears in his eyes, ‘I don’t know what it means because I’ve never had a father, so I’m going to look at tons of television to figure it out.’”
So while critics praise Beautiful Boys‘s multidimensional and humanizing representation of addiction on screen, they shouldn’t neglect its beautifully layered portrait of fatherhood.
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