November 6, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jamie Sisley
Culture Representation: Taking place in Langford, Virginia, the dramatic film “Stay Awake” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Two young adult brothers have different ways of coping with their mother’s opioid addiction.
Culture Audience: “Stay Awake” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing well-acted dramas about people affected by drug addiction and co-dependency.
“Stay Awake” is a searing depiction of the damage that addiction and co-dependency can do to families. This drama is impactful in showing an addicted mother trying to hold on to her two sons, as one of them wants to break free of their dysfunctional cycle. Some of the movie drags with repetition, but the overall story is meaningful and realistically doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.
Written and directed by Jamie Sisley, “Stay Awake” had it world premiere at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival. The movie is told from the perspectives of the two young adult sons who have contrasting ways of dealing with their mother’s opioid addiction. The story in “Stay Awake” takes place in Langford, Virginia, but the movie was actually filmed in upstate New York.
“Stay Awake” begins by showing an unpleasant routine that young adult brothers Ethan (played by Wyatt Oleff) and Derek (played by Fin Argus) have to go through, every time their divorced mother Michelle (played by Chrissy Metz) has gone missing at night: The brothers scour the area, starting with local bars or other places that serve alcohol. They also look for Michelle on the streets, hoping that she isn’t unconscious or dead somewhere.
As a last resort, they check the local hospitals. Ethan and Derek usually find Michelle in a drugged-out stupor. And when the brothers find Michelle, they put her in their family car and try to get her to stay awake on the drive back to their house.
Because of the drugs and alcohol Michelle has ingested, Ethan and Derek are never really sure if it’s at a level where she could die if she passes out. And sometimes, as shown in the beginning of “Stay Awake,” Michelle needs to taken directly to a hospital if she looks like she needs to be treated for an overdose or other medical emergency. These crises are starting to take their toll on everyone in this trio of family members.
Michelle, who sells lingerie through her home-based online business, is addicted to prescription opioids. “Stay Awake” doesn’t specifically name what Michelle’s drug of choice is, but that information doesn’t have to be mentioned, because the story is about how Michelle’s addiction affects her and her closest loved ones. The movie shows that she abuses alcohol too.
Ethan is about 18 years old, while Derek is in his early 20s. Their father Alex left the family years ago and has not been in contact with Michelle, Ethan and Derek. It’s hinted that Michelle’s addiction problems have been going on for years. And this addiction has caused Michelle and her sons to be caught in a miserable cycle where she often disappears for hours and sometimes days, without telling anyone where she is, while Ethan and Derek have to look for her.
Optimistic extrovert Derek, who is an aspiring actor, doesn’t hesitate to do what he can to look out for Michelle and take care of her. By contrast, moody and introverted Ethan is starting to become very bitter and resentful of all the burdens that Michelle’s addiction has placed on the family. These opposite attitudes inevitably cause conflicts between Ethan and Derek.
A great deal of the movie is about how these family members disagree about how Michelle should be handling this problem. Ethan strongly believes that Michelle should be in rehab. Michelle doesn’t really want to go to rehab, and Derek is inclined to go along with whatever Michelle wants. Like many addicts who are not in recovery, Michelle thinks she can conquer her addiction all on her own.
An early scene in the movie shows that Michelle is getting psychiatric treatment from Dr. Stanley Carson (played by Robert Vincent Smith), who asks Michelle if she’s had suicidal thoughts. “Doesn’t everybody?” Michelle asks. When Michelle sees that’s not the answer she should say to get the prescription pills that she wants, she changes her answer to “no.” With a world-weary attitude, Dr. Carson then writes a refill for Michelle’s prescription.
Much of “Stay Awake” shows the lives of Ethan and Derek when they’re not with their mother. Ethan, the “book smart” brother, is in his last year of high school. He works part-time at the Jolly Cow Drive-In, which is a popular hangout for many of the local teens. Ethan plans to go a university, and he will be the first person in his family to get a college education. Ethan’s choice in universities becomes the catalyst for a major conflict in one of the movie’s subplots.
Derek is a modestly successful actor who usually gets work in TV commercials. Because he doesn’t often get work as an actor, Derek has a job at a bowling alley called Langford Lanes. He’s been wanting to expand his acting experience, but Derek often doesn’t go to auditions if the auditions conflict with times that Derek wants to look after his mother Michelle.
Ethan has been trying to get Derek to stop being so co-dependent on Michelle and pursue acting jobs that would require Derek to travel. However, Derek refuses to consider any job opportunities that would take him far away from Michelle. Derek wants to make sure he’s near enough in case Michelle has another health emergency. Derek doesn’t want Michelle to think that he’s abandoning her.
“Stay Awake” also somewhat explores the love lives of Ethan and Derek. In the beginning of the movie, Ethan is dating a classmate called Ashley (played by Quinn McColgan), who also works at the Jolly Cow Drive-In. There’s a major turning point in their relationship regarding their college plans. Ashley also has issues over the physical intimacy part of their relationship. Ashley wonders why it’s not as passionate as she would like it to be.
The movie later shows, without saying it out loud, that Ethan is secretly gay or queer. Ethan is attracted to a classmate named Mark (played by Maxwell Whittington-Cooper), who befriends Ethan and has no idea that Ethan has romantic feelings for him. As for Derek, it’s mentioned that he has a pattern of dating girls who are still in high school. One of them is a girl named Melanie (played Cree Cicchino, also known as Cree), whose parents don’t approve of her relationship with Derek.
“Stay Awake” accurately shows the problems that many American families experience when they can’t afford rehab for someone in the family with addiction health problems. Michelle has been to rehab multiple times already and has always relapsed after brief periods of being clean and sober. In addition to trying to convince Michelle to go to rehab again, her sons have to figure out how to pay for their top-choice rehab center, which is a private facility.
If they can’t find the money to pay for it, Michelle would have to go to a rehab center that is run by the state government. Ethan and Derek both think the government-run rehab facility is inferior to the private rehab center that they think will give Michelle better treatment for her addiction problems. Albert Jones has a supporting role as Dennis, a no-nonsense rehab counselor who refuses to let Michelle manipulate him.
“Stay Awake” is as much about secrets and shame as it is about the question of whether or not Michelle will ever get clean and sober. (Metz’s effective performance as Michelle involves portraying the self-loathing of an addict on a downward spiral.) Because the story is told from the perspectives of Ethan and Derek, a big part of the movie is about how the brothers deal with the secrets and shame they have over their mother’s addiction. The coping mechanisms that Ethan and Derek use in dealing with this problem also spill over into how they deal with other issues in their lives.
All of the cast members in “Stay Awake” give authentic-looking performances. Oleff is a standout in how he portrays Ethan and the nuances of Ethan’s inner turmoil. Ethan is someone who both loves and hates the drug addict in his family. Meanwhile, Derek is grappling with his longtime perception of being “good son,” which is at odds with Ethan’s perception. Ethan doesn’t think that being a “good son” means being a co-dependent who can do more harm than good in getting an addict on the road to recovery.
There’s a point in the movie where “Stay Awake” could have gone down a very predictable path. However, the movie is consistently realistic and takes some unexpected turns, just like life can take unexpected turns. “Stay Awake” might not be an easy film to watch for people who are “triggered” by the issues that are shown in the movie. However, it’s a better-than-average character study of how addiction problems can be dealt with very differently in the same family.
MarVista Entertainment released “Stay Awake” in New York City on May 19, 2023, in Los Angeles in May 25, 2203. The movie was released on digital and VOD on August 14, 2023.