Brothers Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) and Derek (Fin Argus) have become accustomed to taking care of their mother Michelle (Chrissy Metz) and her prescription drug abuse. Every time Ethan comes home, he gently walks in the door, knowing that it is entirely possible that he will find his mother blacked out from her pills. Ethan and Derek have had to deal with this situation so many times before that it has become a tedious routine. The couple tries to keep their mother awake by loudly singing songs and getting her to guess what movies they are from while driving to the hospital, where they all stay until morning. As Michelle drives them to have breakfast the next morning, she does not bother to apologize. She knows it probably won’t be the last time, and her sons certainly don’t want to hear false promises again.
Stay awakeinstructor debut for Jamie Sisley (who also wrote the film), knows that there are plenty of films about opioid addiction, and deals with this difficult subject with a careful, knowledgeable, and well-measured touch. Stay awake is often honest and painful about this type of addiction in a way that is often jarring, but Sisley does it in a way that never feels suffocating, always ready with a lightness or a glimmer of hope that balances the whole film beautifully.
Instead of focusing specifically on Michelle and her addiction to prescription drugs, Sisley does Stay awake about her two sons and how this addiction changes their lives and potential future. Despite often having to do his homework in the middle of the night in a hospital, he has entered Brown University with a full trip – but Rhode Island is far from his mother and brother in rural Virginia, and the situation he would be leaving behind. Meanwhile, Derek has taken occasional acting jobs in local commercials, but knows the opportunities would be greater as an actor without being tied to the problems at home. Yet Derek always looks on the bright side of life. When Derek’s girlfriend criticizes Derek’s constant optimism, she asks what could be the benefit of Derek wasting away at a job in a dead end in a bowling alley. Derek replies that sometimes they turn cups into dolls to solve his current problems, a strange catharsis that strangely enough helps him. But as the older brother, Derek has always had to look on the bright side and always tried to make things not seem so tragic to Ethan and their mother.
Stay awake is not just about addiction, but more about the lives that are put on hold while trying to help a loved one with their own problems. Sisley does this in a way that never makes any of the sides feel selfish in their desires. Michelle obviously wants to get better for her sons, but when she is left alone with her thoughts, everyday life or the thought of her husband leaving their family, she can not help but lean on the pills that give her a hint of comfort. Similarly, Ethan and Derek are stuck in a choice to try to figure out what is right for them and their lives. Should they explore their potential future, or should they pause their lives to keep this pattern of helping their mother going? Stay awake does a phenomenal job of showing the unbearable cyclical nature of addiction and illness, and the deep depression and pain that the cyclical nature goes through.
But Sisley manages all of this in a story that never gets too overwhelmed by darkness, as Ethan and Derek find small joys in their lives where they can. Oleff and Argus are fantastic who present brighter moments even in the darkest times, and especially in their scenes together we see both characters trying their best to help the other in this situation where only they seem to know how bad it really is is. Both Oleff and Argus are excellent here at showing that there are clear desires that each have that they are afraid to share as their future is uncertain until their mother gets better. Metz is also amazing as Michelle, as we can see without saying anything that her optimism about her future is slowly starting to disappear when she is left alone with her thoughts, which often causes her to spiral back into her addiction.
In some ways, Stay awake almost reminiscent of The father, as both films show a really serious problem that causes pain in a loved one, yet manages to tackle the difficult and conflicting emotions in those who try to help the person in pain. Like The fathershows Sisley the anger and pain that can arise from trying to help someone who simply can not escape their situation, but also shows the love that lies beneath it all that pushes everyone through. Stay awake is certainly a balancing act between addiction, compassion, difficult choices that still cope with howling funny moments and periods of joy. Stay awake is not only an integrated film about addiction, it is also one of the best directorial debuts of the year.
Evaluation: B +
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