Rinse and repeat. This is the unbroken and depressing cycle of drug abuse as depicted in Stay Awake. Firstly, it should be stated, that this movie does not schmaltz-up the experience of pain killer addiction with tear-jerker scenes. In fact, while the addicted individual is the focus and usually the central discussion in most of the captured moments, this is really a film about how others cope with people who have such sicknesses. It may not technically be a sickness that goes viral (so to speak), but its torment can spread for a long while, day to day. Rinse and repeat.
Chrissy Metz plays a mother of two boys who are turning into young men and is also hooked on pills - as many in America are. Her introduction is one of grand sadness, showing off what she could be and would rather be, before falling into what she is at the moment. From cooking family dinner to being found half-conscious, while food is still on the stove. The music playing in the home is but a cruel punctuation to a many times played-out scenario, where she’ll be driven to the hospital for revival, while her sons both play a song guessing game to keep her from passing out. Stay Awake may not go “hardcore” into the drug scene - and why should it have to when the problem is in every neighborhood? - but I’d call it hard nonetheless.
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Her two kids, one of whom with the assumed father figure role and the other who is moving off to college soon, have both seen enough tragedy for one childhood to ever bear witness to. If her body isn’t at home, they’ll search the streets and alleys at night for possible spots she may have nodded off. If they don’t have a car, one might be “borrowed.” It’s never by choice, but by obligation and care. The siblings want so much to move on, especially when nothing seems to be working. Should they feel guilty? Stay Awake has no answers, and that’s good. It’s a movie that expresses the thoughts and feelings of the caring as if they’re in a swirling state of static, where their help is more of a crutch to the cared for than it is helpful.
Maybe it was the compositions at night and the ones under fluorescent humming lights that made everything stand out here. Maybe it was the performances of Wyatt Oleff and Fin Argus (the siblings) who juggle the navigation of assisting their mother while living their lives that absolutely shook me. Stay Awake couldn’t possibly be better crafted as a family drama and as a coming-of-age picture than it already is.
Outshining Chrissy Metz, who plays a character that’s always in the back of their thoughts, Oleff and Argus articulate so many feigned smiles and a lot of difficult-to-hide angst. They play their roles with sad walks but genuine happiness for one another’s accomplishments. They’re exhausted but enthused about the future, whether it involves their mother or not. They play things out with foresight and expectations for the worst to happen at first, before letting their guards down when the appearance of health comes open. The two traverse a tightly directed and lovely shot script with a presence of been there done that on the surface, and with a kernel of hopefulness on the inside that begs to be popped. A welcome home celebration scene in particular highlights this so well, that I nearly shouted the merit from the top of my seat.
An all too familiar story for many that’s done with measured doubt and uncertainty, and one that never gives up into triumph territory, Stay Awake is one of the more fantastically told movies on the subject of addiction that’s been made in recent times. Never overblown, always grounded when needed. Rinse and repeat. 4/5
Stay Awake won two awards at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival (the only American film at that event to win anything), and will be coming very soon.