“Stay Awake” is an addiction story told mainly from a caretaker’s perspective. Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Jamie Sisley, who based the story on his own experiences, it’s a muted, gentle drama set in a sleepy Virginia town (population 19,000). The place offers few opportunities for young people like Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) and his older brother Derek (Steffan Fin Argus), decent and intelligent young men who are eager to leave childhood behind and start new lives. Change is never easy, but it’s harder in this case because the brothers are psychologically shackled to their mother, Michelle (Chrissy Metz), an addict.
Derek, the elder brother, is an actor who’s gotten work on local commercials. Ethan is an academic whiz who’s about to graduate from high school and has been awarded a scholarship at an Ivy League university. In an ideal world, their only concerns would be the mix of anxiety and excitement that comes with jumping into adulthood.
The brothers adore their mother and treat her warmly and patiently, repeatedly driving her to the emergency room after overdoses. They sit in the front seat of the family’s only car and sing old songs to their mother as she slumps in the backseat on the way to the hospital, pressing her to identify each tune to ensure she’s not drifting into oblivion. But the movie subtly makes you aware of what their dedication costs them, as in a scene where Ethan stops by the ice cream shop where he works alongside his girlfriend Ashley (Quinn McCoglan) and notices his friend Mark (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper) sitting with friends at a table outside. Although there’s no dialogue, you know what Ethan is thinking: I should be with them, too, but I can’t be because of my mom. Things get more fraught when the family has an accident during one of their trips to the hospital, emphasizing the film’s most distinctive virtue: the way it situates the family’s problems within the context of a coldly merciless American society that only cares about the rich and the upper-middle class, in that order.
The collision wrecks the family’s only ride and forces them to take lifts everywhere at the same time that Michelle is entering a recovery facility. The state-run facility is essentially “discount rehab,” the only place they could afford. On their tour, Michelle asks the director and head counselor (Albert Jones) if it’s true that they have a yoga studio. He has to tell her that although they have a room that used to be a yoga studio, it had to be converted to hold a replacement boiler bought with funds they once paid their yoga instructor. The brothers had toured a superior facility but nixed it after finding out it cost $800 a day. “We absolutely take five percent off for those families that require financial aid,” the director told them.
They could get free treatment for their mother if she could be committed to a psych ward, but that would require proving that she’s tried to harm herself. “She’s not crazy,” Ethan tells Derek. “She doesn’t try to eat people or throw her own feces. Rehab’s the right move.” Then there’s a cut to Michelle sitting in the bathroom, listening to her sons talk about her. She has that zoned-out yet ashamed expression people have when they realize they’re a burden on others.
The movie seems as if it’s pulling its punches. Addiction and recovery are painful grinds for both the addict and everyone in their inner circle, and there’s surely a more raw, confrontational, not-so-nice version of the story lurking inside this one. And the screenplay is sometimes too earnestly blunt and network TV-like in how its characters talk to each other, as in a scene where Ashley tears into Ethan after finding out that he would prefer to go to the Ivy League school rather than the one they’ve both been admitted to (she yells a laundry list of her dissatisfactions at him; it’s like a crowd-pleasing “telling somebody off” scene on a sitcom).
But for the most part, “Stay Awake” stays low-key and believable, particularly when the actors move through real-world locations while living their lives. Alejandro Mejía’s cinematography is filled with what look like “stolen” shots (i.e., shots taken on the fly while regular life was going on around the actors). And the filmmakers have a knack for finding beauty in places that aren’t coded as beautiful, such as a junkyard piled high with scrap heaps or the bowling alley where Derek hosts a date with his girlfriend Melanie (Cree), turning off the overhead fixtures so that their meal is illuminated only by orange and blue from the bar’s signage.
It’s true that all addiction stories are fundamentally the same. But that’s also true of stories about idealistic young recruits who go to war and find out how cruel and senseless it is, undercover cops who start to identify with the crooks they’ve fooled, and lovers who forge an intense connection despite profound differences in life experience but then break up because they can’t fully overcome them. What really matters is the telling: the setting, the characters’ psychologies, and the details that make a moment pop, like the closeups in the opening of the carrots and onions that Michelle is cooking in a pan just before her first onscreen trip to the emergency room.
It’s also refreshing to see a recovery story that focuses mainly on loved ones who have to clean up an addict’s messes (although Michelle’s struggles, including her lingering anger at being abandoned by the boys’ cheating father, are never neglected). “Stay Awake” knows that even if an addict and her caretakers are nice people, the struggle isn’t necessarily easier. When the niceness falls away, the film is stingingly honest. “She throws all the help that we give her right back in our faces,” Ethan tells Derek, one of those statements that’s not objectively true but reveals the speaker’s frustration at the challenges that keep a family running in place instead of moving forward.
Now playing in theaters.