Filmmakers often turn to stories of addiction because they seem tailor-made for a perfect, three-act structure.
Act One: A problem begins. Act Two: The protagonist hits rock bottom. Act Three: The person confronts their problem, conquers it, and begins to struggle back to normalcy.
What Stay Awake realizes, though, is that in real life, a lot of times it’s all Act Two.
Michelle loves her two teenage boys, Ethan and Derek. But her life has become a cycle – straight and sober for a while, then pills, then overdosing, then rehab, then release. Then repeat – straight, pills, overdose, rehab, release. And repeat again.
Her sons love her just as fiercely as she loves them. They bring her to the hospital, research treatment facilities, navigate a threadbare health-care system. But she’s not getting any better.
And they’re getting worse – with Derek turning down job opportunities and Ethan prepared to pass up a life-changing chance at college, just so they can both stay home and keep taking care of her. And keep sacrificing their futures.
It’s a grim story but filmmaker Jamie Sisley – who admits he lived some of it, growing up – never gives in to despair. Because addicts, and their families, never can. You need to keep a spark of hope alive. Maybe this time. OK, maybe next time.
Still, you need to keep yourself alive, too – something Derek and Ethan painfully come to realize.
Set in the rural corners of Virginia, Stay Awake is a film filled with painfully accurate glimpses of small-town America – strip-mall medical offices, tired bowling alleys, empty ice cream parlors. And yet it also captures the way those ugly, man-made things always seem to sprout like mushrooms in the midst of lush beauty – cascading waterfalls, verdant woods, placid lakes.
The film also.boasts several fine performances. As the two teen brothers, Wyatt Oleff and Fin Argus not only look like siblings but find those easy, fraternal rhythms – sometimes peevishly exasperated, sometimes lovingly protective. And as their struggling mother, Chrissy Metz of TV’s This Is Us is heartbreaking – unfailingly polite, quietly loving, gently regretful, and yet absolutely, headed for disaster.
Once dubbed a crisis, America’s addiction to opioids seems to have become a permanent, slow-moving catastrophe, pushed out of the headlines occasionally but still present, still damaging.
Yet too often when we do think of it it’s in stereotypes, because that makes it easier to ignore.
We think of drugs and see some toothless vagrant, some desperate sex worker. We don’t imagine that nice small-town mom ahead of us at the drive-through. We don’t see how hard her family is working to try to keep her healthy – and hide their shame.
Stay Awake demands we do.