Alan Rowan – “Brain Politics” – in the Movies
“Beautiful Boy” is a film and currently on general release. It is based on the memoir, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff, and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff (his son). I personally found the film quite clichéd, though its point of interest lies elsewhere. Namely, in the way it presents the contemporary phenomena of addiction as it impacts the life of a teenage boy and those close to him, particularly his father.
In the US, where the film is set, the problems of addiction are profound and devastating. Unlike in most countries, the epidemic of addiction involves both prescribed (i.e. opioid painkillers and amphetamines) and non-prescribed drugs. The statistics are startling (1) (2):
- In 2016 more than 289 million opioid prescriptions were written and death by opioid overdose accounted for 49,000 of the 72,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017 (this being the leading cause of death of Americans under 50). It is also estimated that 16 million Americans take prescription stimulants (amphetamine).
- It is estimated that 30.5 million Americans aged 12 or over used illicit drugs in 2017 (defined as use within the past month) (3). While most of this related to marijuana use (26 million), it is estimated that over 13 million used crystal meth at least once in the past year.
In the film, what is nothing short of a scandal is that the cause of addiction is never a question. The viewer is never presented with any point of view that might explain why this teenage boy becomes a drug addict, what sort of subjective suffering might have led him to sacrifice his life in this particular way. Indeed his blended family, and particularly his father, are presented as normal, hard-working, kind, accepting and ready to help. Moreover, he has available to him the typical “middle class” benefits (e.g. a college education where he can foster his talent for writing). Oddly, one also never encounters his social network and only late in the film, his sole relationship with a woman is presented as secondary to shared drug taking.
Two scenes are worth highlighting. The first is one when the father is indeed seeking an explanation but does not receive one. Rather a psychiatrist/neurologist explains to him that “meth” destroys parts of the brain and with this the cravings and addiction becomes worse. However, if the addict can stop in time there is hope, as damaged “nerve endings” can grow back. This pseudo-explanation dovetails with another scene towards the end of the film. The father with his (second) wife attends Al Anon where for the viewer the “three C’s” are prominently displayed (i.e. you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and there is no cure). In the film this is presented as a “therapeutic moment”, one when the father begins to say a definite “no” to his son’s desperate cries for help and promises to quit.
In this film its protagonists are presented as passive and powerless both in taking or responding to drug-use. Here the appeal to the “brain” underpins this by excluding “explanations” at a subjective, familial or social level. Indeed one paradox is that the “mad consumption” of the son is only responded to “helpfully” when the father returns to his own world of consumptive passions, as in, taking care of himself and his family.
In contemporary culture film is a powerful purveyor of cultural norms and here we see it being used to banish any notion that the unconscious exists, and in doing so, put the subject to sleep. Gone is any notion of the divided subject inhabited by language, of desire or of the death drive, of the rise of the object that directly administers a jouissance to the body via drugs. Rather the drug taking subject is “any subject”, no longer singular and devoid of any means to analyze his loveless life and how it is caught in a boundless push-to-enjoyment, a generalized toxicomania, that responds with an object to the subject’s isolation in the social bond. This is one of the dimensions at stake in the title of our conference. Another concerns the “nobody is responsible” subtext of the film, highlighted via the twined appeal to scientific discourse (the brain) and a moral-religious discourse of acceptance.
- Source: Wikipedia, “Opioid Epidemic”, (accessed Feb. 2019).
- The Washington Times. 16 Million US Adults on Prescription Stimulants Study Shows. April 16th, 2018.
- Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey in Drug Use and Health. Published jointly by: Substance Abuse and Health Service Administration and Department of Health and Human Services