The Terrible Truth of Beautiful Boy

“I need to find a way to fill this big, black hole in me.”

Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) says this in Beautiful Boy,  speaking in a meeting to family, friends and fellow addicts. He’s talking about his own addictions, especially to crystal meth. “I felt complete,” he says of the aftermath of taking the drug. “I’ve been chasing that high ever since.” He talks about how grateful he is to be off the drug now, how much his parents and friends have supported him. “I want them to be proud of me,” he says. And he means it.

But still, that swirling hole lurks.

There’s so much I could write about Beautiful Boy. It moved me—wrenched me, really—in unexpected ways. But now, weeks after I saw it, my thoughts return to that big, black hole.

Movie awards season is still pretty young yet. Lots of Oscar hopefuls have yet to show up. But of those that I’ve seen, many make reference to that hole, and our overwhelming craving to fill it.

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), the doomed singer from A Star is Born, felt that hole. He hoped to fill the vacuum inside him with his love for Ally (Lady Gaga). But it wasn’t enough; he turned to alcohol and drugs, and in time they consumed him.

You get the feeling that maybe First Man’s Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) had a hole deep inside him, too—one left by the death of his little girl, Karen. He turned that hole into an obsessive drive to work: Each step to the moon he took seemed a step away from his family.

And then there’s Toller (Ethan Hawke), the tormented priest who lost a son to war in First Reformed. He pushes on, giving what comfort he can. But he’s sick, both physically and emotionally. The hole gnaws at his insides, killing him a bit at a time. He pours alcohol into the hole as if it was a swimming pool. But the more he pours the more it leaks, and we sense in the end he’s not looking for something to fill it, but for it to swallow him. To make him the hole. To surrender to its all-encompassing, all-voiding vacuum.

We see that same impulse in movies, in life. The desire to have that hole filled eventually morphs into a desire to be emptied.

When I first heard Nic talk of that “big, black hole,” my mind flashed to the words of 17th century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?

This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

The empty print, Pascal writes. A residue that left behind evidence of something better.

Nic said that the crystal meth made him feel complete. I wonder how much of our self-made struggles in this life are our straining efforts to find a sense of completeness. We look for it in relationships and work and escapes of all sorts. Maybe sometimes it drives us to greatness. Sometimes it pulls us down. But most often, I think, it simply lives with us—the gnawing knowledge that we’re missing something.

I used to think that Pascal meant that God would fill that space in us now—that finding Him would make us feel whole. And perhaps that happens to some extent. Studies show that those who believe in God report a greater sense of happiness and mission.

So when Christians, like me, still feel that sense of incompleteness in our lives—we feel evidence of that gnawing hole—we may sometimes wonder whether we’re Christian enough. Whether we’re doing something wrong.

And yet Pascal speaks of “true happiness” in past tense. We were once whole. Now, in this fallen world, we’re not. We can’t expect to be wholly healed here. Not now. But someday.

And until then?

None of the movies I’ve mentioned explicitly point to God as a source of solace. But they do point to something close to His heart: love. All of our characters come closer to their own narrative salvation—to a greater sense of completeness—through its promise. Love of companion, love of spouse, love of child, love of father. And sometimes, in context, it feels like it’s enough. And sometimes, it’s not.

In Beautiful Boy, We know Nic’s dad, David (Steve Carell), loves his son. He does everything he can to save his boy. His beautiful, beautiful boy. Sometimes, we see David and Nic say just one word to each other: “Everything.” It was a tradition that began when Nic really was a boy. David tells his son that his love for him is bigger than everything—that Nic means more to David than everything else the world has or ever will.

But even that love is not enough to fill that hole. Not by itself.

That’s the hard reality of Beautiful Boy—the acknowledgement that perhaps Nic—perhaps all of us—will never know what it feels to be truly complete. We can’t bring that sense of completion to anyone else, no matter how much we love them. We are finite beings, filled with our own brittle flaws. And we’ve got our own holes to deal with.

But we live on, hopefully. We find happiness and purpose in our sense of incompletion. And perhaps we can take solace even in that hole. Pascal’s empty print and trace speaks to an ultimate truth. A home. A place where we can rest in our Father’s hand, seeing not just His fingerprints, but feeling his fingers, holding us close and warm.

Finally, we will be complete.