Stay Awake, the directorial debut of Jamie Sisley (who also wrote the film), knows that there are plenty of films about opioid addiction, and handles this difficult subject with a careful, knowing, and well-measured touch. Stay Awake is frequently honest and painful about this type of addiction in a way that is often jarring, but Sisley does so in a way that never feels suffocating, always ready with a lightness or glimmer of hope that balances the entire film beautifully.
Instead of focusing specifically on Michelle and her dependence on prescription drugs, Sisley makes Stay Awake about her two sons, and how this addiction alters their lives and potential futures. Despite frequently having to do his homework in the middle of the night at a hospital, has gotten into Brown University with a full ride—however, Rhode Island is a long way from his mother and brother in rural Virginia, and the situation he would be leaving behind. Meanwhile, Derek has taken the occasional acting jobs in local commercials, but knows the possibilities would be greater as an actor without being tied to the problems at home. Yet Derek always looks on the bright side of life. When Derek’s girlfriend criticizes Derek’s constant optimism, she asks what could possibly be the upside of Derek wasting away in a dead-end bowling alley job. Derek replies that sometimes, they turn cups into puppets to work out his current problems, a strange catharsis that oddly helps him. But as the older brother, Derek has always had to look at the bright side, always trying to make things not seem so tragic for Ethan and their mother.
Stay Awake isn’t just about addiction, but more so, it’s about the lives that are put on hold while trying to help a loved one with their own problems. Sisley does this in a way that never makes either side feel selfish in their desires. Michelle clearly wants to get better for her sons, yet when she’s left alone with her thoughts, the mundanity of her everyday life, or the thought of her husband leaving their family behind, she can’t help but lean on the pills that give her some semblance of comfort. Similarly, Ethan and Derek are stuck with a choice of trying to figure out what is right for them and their lives. Should they explore their potential futures, or should they pause their lives in order to keep this pattern of helping their mother going? Stay Awake does a phenomenal job of showing the unbearable cyclical nature of addiction and disease, and the deep depression and pain that cyclical nature going.
But Sisley manages all this in a story that manages to never get too overwhelmed with darkness, as Ethan and Derek find little joys in their lives where they can. Oleff and Argus are fantastic as presenting lighter moments even in the darkest of times, and especially in their scenes together, we see both characters trying their best to help the other in this situation that only they seem to know how bad it truly is. Both Oleff and Argus are excellent here in showing there are clear desires each has that they’re afraid to share, since their futures are uncertain until their mother gets better. Metz is also tremendous as Michelle, as without saying anything, we can see her optimism about her future slowly start to fade away when she’s left on her own with her thoughts, which often causes her to spiral back into her addiction.
In some ways, Stay Awake almost reminds of The Father, as both films show a truly serious issue causing pain in a loved one, yet manages to tackle the difficult and conflicting feelings of those trying to help that person in pain. Like The Father, Sisley shows the anger and pain that can arise from trying to assist someone who simply can’t escape their situation, but also shows the love underneath it all that pushes everyone through. Stay Awake is certainly a balancing act of addiction, compassion, difficult choices, that still manages hilarious moments and periods of joy. Stay Awake isn’t just an integral film about addiction, it’s also one of the best directorial debuts of the year.
Stay Awake is in theaters now.