Stay Awake

In recent years, America’s opioid crisis has found itself being tackled more and more by filmmakers. ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED – 2022’s Venice Golden Lion recipient, from renowned documentarian Laura Poitras – showcased the horrifying truth of the Sackler family’s wrongdoings around reclassifying OxyContin as a non-addictive substance through the eyes of Nan Goldin’s activism, while the Disney+ release DOPESICK contained multiple storylines in the series that dramatised both the lives of addicts and that of the Sackler’s evasion from law enforcement.

In Jamie Sisley’s funny yet semi-serious debut feature STAY AWAKE – a feature-length adaptation of his short of the same name – he brings together a story about the opioid crisis from the perspective of a small town family. While the previously mentioned pieces on the opioid crisis rigorously interrogate the Sackler family’s role (for good reason), Sisley instead chooses to ignore their reach to hone in on the cyclical nature between opioid use and the destruction that addiction brings upon the lives of their dependents.

In what is described as a “fictionalized account of the filmmaker’s coming of age”, the film portrays the lives of two brothers, Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) and Derek (Steffan Argus), as they deal with their mother, Michelle (Chrissy Metz), and her addiction. Their young lives are ripe with opportunity: they interact with love interests, have cute dates and get accepted into college. However, the crippling relapses their mother goes through curb those bright openings. The film opens with Ethan arriving at Derek’s bowling alley workplace, with a solemn, silent look on Ethan’s young face. It’s a look Derek knows all too well as he is forced to leave work yet again to drive his unconscious mother to the hospital.

As much as that all sounds quite heavy, Sisley’s highly personal story is quite light, despite also dealing with both the outer political ramifications of opioid use (some unsanitary actions from Ethan towards the doctor who prescribed their mother with oxy is the closest that Sisley gets to showing justified rage). At the same time, the characters avoid engaging with their mother’s mortality in favour of the adolescent naivety they crave. Sisley is showing how these boys’ normal lives, which are filled with commercial auditions, failed romances and the desire for education, must continue without the direct influence of their mother. Yet, their mother’s actions consistently pierce the mundanity of their existence, such as when the joy of a college admission quickly deflates at the fault of Michelle’s addiction. The film meanders around the lives of these young boys as a result, in a coming-of-age drama that has no urgency in its personal deconstructing of Sisley’s youth until Michelle’s next relapse.

As this is such a personal rendition, it begs the question of who Sisley’s surrogate is within the story. Is Ethan, the aspiring student, or is Derek, a commercial actor, unable to get their break? It may not matter which, but it gives the film a crisis of perspective. If Ethan and Derek are both Sisley, dividing the narrative between them dilutes the impact of his story’s personal, specific humanity.

Often funny, as it plays the endearing brotherly bond for much-needed warmth, it’s a film that doesn’t quite have enough drive or rage for the American opioid situation many find themselves in. Scored with a plucky guitar and piano combo, STAY AWAKE is a lively charmer. However, its interest in a microcosm of the opioid crisis rather than the grand picture limits the film’s scope, and its emotional strength is limited by an insistence on diverting attention away from the addict.