Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 21, 2022 11:11 pm 
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Growing up with a mother who constantly OD's on prescription opioids

Newcomer Jaime Sisley his brought has own personal family experience to bear in his feature debut about a small town mom in rural Virginia whose opioid addiction is holding back her two talented young sons from achieving the promise of their own lives. Derek (Fin Argus), the elder son, a handsome and gifted actor, is stuck just going for provincial jobs - the peak is he's being considered for Virginia State Tourism publicity. His life's work could be running the local bowling alley where he works. Ethan (Wyatt Oleff), also dark-haired and chiseled so he can pass as fraternal, who is finishing high school, is smart enough to have just landed a full scholarship to Brown University.

But they keep having to rush their mother to the hospital, and it takes two of them to do that, one to drive and the other to make sure she stays alive. The fact is they've let their own lives and ambitions become stunted and deformed to fit the addict whose life has swallowed up theirs and they can't visualize what it would be like to move on. The situation has given Derek a cover for his fear of failing as an actor.

This is the dynamic that rules Stay Awake. It's a change from dramas like Beautiful Boy, starring Timouthee Chalamet and Ben Is Back starring Lucas Hedges, where the young sons were the addicts. But we still spend most of the time with the young guys. As Michelle, the mom, Chrissy Metz doesn't have much to do. She seems to be bland and pleasant when she's not OD'ing. Derek and Ethan are pleasant too - they're so darned promising, and handsome, and cheerful, you wonder how they manage.

Of course there are signs of stress. Ethan has made his girlfriend really angry by not telling he's applied to Brown, till he gets the scholarship; she thought they'd be going together to the local school. Ethan urges Derek to go away for better acting jobs; Derek pushes Ethan to go for the scholarship. But neither one can see themselves going away to pursue their own lives. They get Michelle into rehab for a while under a charismatic, tough combined director, shrink, and mentor (Albert Jones) who pushes the boys and their mom to exchange some home truths in his office. Though him, Sisley conveys his understanding of addiction. Through Ethan and Derek, he conveys addiction's painful impact on family members.

Just as the rehab director character does multiple duty, a few locations serve for the action: home, hospital, rehab, takeout stand, bowling alley, car. Then the car gets crashed and they have to switch to Uber or walk.

There is another important character we don't see much of: the MD who has been prescribing the meds to mom. If the chief villain behind opioid addiction is Big Pharma, the local pusher is the irresponsible sawbones who doles out the wares to the victims. A sleek, white-haired small town villain, Dr. Carlson (Robert Vincent Smith) hovers in the background, the object of the boys' hate.

Derek and Ethan love Michelle and want to keep her alive. In rehab she dreams of conquering her addiction - whose baffling nature the boys don't necessarily understand - of being a support to accomplished, independent sons and an adoring and adored grandma to their kids. It's a tragic, touching dream, because it seems so far away. She might succeed, but so many addicts fail.

Addiction movies wind up being fatalistic, cynical, melodramatic, depressing, with a touch of false uplift: you can't really win. Sisley has made an honest try, but, reflecting his own point of view, his focus winds up being on the two brothers, who aren't the problem and can't be the solution either. However, they play well together, seeming more and more fraternal, and we sympathize for them. They may come to seem more like an attractive distraction than an illustration of the terrible dysfunction created in a family by chronic drug dependency. But perhaps Sisley means to convey the silent, low-key way that prescription drugs invade lives. Though the ending is a bit blurry here, the implication is clear: Ethan is going away to Brown - but for some reason switching from English to biology. Perhaps he's going to find a pill to cure opioid addiction. Good luck with that. Is Derek going to slip away too, while Michelle continues in her deadly cycles? Unclear. It might look as if the filmmaker has split himself into two characters, one who leaves and one who stays, but Sisley grew up as one of four brothers. The feature began as a short film at the 2015 Berlinale, after winning a jury award at Slamdance.

Stay Awake in its feature form wound up being the opening night film at the Berlinale this year and now also at San Francisco on the strength of that youthful attractiveness, the talent of the actors, and the urgency of the opioid drug addiction problem.

Stat Awake, 94 mins., debuted at the 2022 Berlinale Feb. 3, 2022, where it won the German Arthouse Cinema Award and the Generation Youth Jury Special Mention. It showed Apr. 21, 2022 as the Opening Night film at the SFIFF.

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