THE STORY – Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) and Derek (Fin Argus) have been taking care of their opiate-addicted mother, Michelle (Chrissy Metz), for years. The brothers’ worlds shift when Ethan is accepted to a prestigious Ivy League university, and Derek gets a coveted acting audition. The boys, torn between familial responsibility and a desperate desire for freedom, must decide whether to stay in their small hometown to care for their drug-addicted mother or leave their past behind to pursue their dreams.
THE CAST – Chrissy Metz, Wyatt Oleff, Fin Argus, Quinn McColgan & Cree Cicchino
THE TEAM – Jamie Sisley (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 94 Minutes
Sometimes, a film’s smartest choice is the least flashy one. Such is the case with “Stay Awake,” the new addiction drama written and directed by Jamie Sisley. But to even categorize it in that subgenre would be something of a disservice, as the film eschews many expected tropes and beats that films of its ilk often rely upon. It’s a grounded, moving family story told with appropriate simplicity.
The film follows a typical American family facing a problem that’s becoming, unfortunately, more and more typical – an opiate addiction. The family matriarch, Michelle (Chrissy Metz), has had her life interrupted by this dependency. Her two sons, Derek (Fin Argus) and Ethan (Wyatt Oleff), do their best to live normal lives as young adults but find themselves weighed down by responsibilities far greater than is typically expected of people their age.
Films centering around dependency, addiction, and recovery from any number of substances or other habits are nothing new. Even going back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, one can find examples such as the Best Picture winner of 1945, the alcoholism drama “The Lost Weekend.” As such, it’s almost easy to predict how these types of stories will be told on the big screen. The cycle of self-destructive behavior, the frustrated friends and family members, the intervention, the inevitable relapse – all these common story beats can almost make one feel glib when faced with yet another film about this type of struggle. “Stay Awake” makes the intelligent choice of doing its very best to tell its topical story of an opiate addict and her two loving but frustrated sons with as little reliance on these tactics as possible.
The film opens with the boys rushing their mother to the emergency room, fighting to keep her awake by playing a “guess the tune” style song. And while there is an urgency to their situation, they’re far from panicked. It quickly becomes clear that this is as routine to them as waking up for school or brushing their teeth before bed, which makes the whole thing even more upsetting in its banality. And this level of shocking normality permeates throughout the entire film, wisely reflecting what it likely feels like for loved ones dealing with someone in the throes of a long-term addiction.
But that’s not to say there are no stakes to be found. When major life changes arrive for the boys – one gets into college, and the other receives a long-awaited audition – they suddenly must break the cycle of tolerating their mother’s habit and try to force a change. A good portion of the movie is spent watching the brother’s going back and forth, trying to persuade each other to make a decision, which gets repetitive and consumes a large amount of the short run time. But at the same time, it’s not an unrealistic way to depict two young men facing adult decisions, especially without a reliable parental figure to guide them.
Outside of the main familial trio, the supporting characters are far less fleshed-out. Specifically, many of them have a habit of just saying whatever pops into their heads, no matter how hurtful it may be to the two young men. However, as most of these characters are teenagers, this may not be too far from the truth.
As the loving yet troubled mother Michelle, Metz excels at creating a highly sympathetic character that the audience will inherently root for, even if they find her as frustrating as her fictional sons. She wisely never relies upon the expected histrionics or troubling mannerisms that actors often use to portray characters facing addiction, which is also a credit to Sisley’s understated direction. She also leans into Michelle’s penchant for deflecting via humor, further adding to the realism of her performance. As the younger brother Ethan, Oleff wonderfully portrays a young man who’s impossible not to root for. He appears far more mature for his age than might be expected, which isn’t surprising given his family’s state. But Argus is the standout of the cast as the older brother Derek. They are especially impressive in a tough therapy scene where Derek tentatively but firmly details how hard caring for their mother is right to her face. They skillfully play the trepidation that comes with having to lay out a hard truth to the person who may be hurt by it the most.
“Stay Awake” is a grounded drama that delicately tells a story that’s all too common in our country. It may not be the most earth-shattering film, but the choices Sisley makes are purposefully and smarted, understated.