Many movies over the decades have used drug and alcohol abuse in thousands of different ways, whether for comic relief or to vilify a bad character or sometimes, just because. If you’re a recovering addict, a poorly constructed drug scene with no purpose might seem banal, insulting and degrading; making light of what is a serious problem afflicting millions today. Only you can know what it’s really like to be trapped in a world of addiction, but some films have been deftly crafted and can offer insight both to you, who might see something of yourself in a certain character, or to the general public, who can perhaps glean some empathy for the addict in his misery. Take a look at these oft-critically acclaimed films where realism is front and center. Whether you love them or hate them (or haven’t seen them yet), there’s plenty to take away from each one.
“Traffic” is an Oscar-winning film with a star-studded ensemble cast featuring Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Don Cheadle. It was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who gave the film a “documentary” feel, keeping the viewer close and personal as drugs tear the lives of the characters apart. Perhaps the most relatable arc for American viewers was the Caroline storyline, which followed the privileged daughter of an American politician as she and her high school friends experiment with, and then become addicted to, cocaine and heroin.
While later scenes show Caroline tail-spinning out of control as a drug-addicted prostitute, early sequences demonstrate with studied brevity how casual, nonchalant after-school usage and partying can quickly develop into something much more serious with teens, while the user and addict still manages to maintain his or her “public” image. In Caroline’s case, it is that of a bright, intelligent and promising young adult. It doesn’t last and Caroline ends up in rehab, but those early, fraught moments are like watching a tightrope walker who is sure to fall. Yet because of a loving and determined father, Caroline is saved. We see her cleaned up at the end, with both parents at her rehab meeting, giving her their support. If you are a recovering addict who has been lucky enough to feel the support and love of your family, then you can understand how meaningful and significant this final scene for Caroline would be.
Before Catherine Hardwicke directed Bella and Edward in the first “Twilight” movie, she sank her teeth into rather meatier fare with 2003’s “Thirteen,” a vivid portrayal of a plucky and sweet 13-year-old girl who loses control at the persuasion of a wild friend. Along the same lines of the Caroline story in “Traffic,” young Tracy Freeland dabbles in some of this (marijuana) and a little of that (huffing solvent fume). She then increasingly gives herself up to casual sex as well as abrasive, cruel behavior and self-mutilation. The film highlights the dangers of peer pressure in a frank, unflinching way and benefits the most from stellar performances by Holly Hunter, who plays Tracy’s desperate and frightened mother and Evan Rachel Wood, who was actually 13 years old at the time of filming. The movie ends on a positive note, with mother and daughter reconciled, which underlines the importance of a strong family presence and vigilant attention to changes in teenage behavior.
“Requiem for a Dream” (2000)
The first year of the 21st century was a good one for realistic and substantial dramas following drug addicts. “Requiem for a Dream” is based on a novel of the same name by Hubert Selby, Jr., with whom Darren Aronofsky, the director, collaborated on the screenplay. Selby was himself plagued by addiction to painkillers and heroin, which he quit after decades of abuse. The film follows four individuals, three of whom are friends; the fourth is the mother of the main character. Harry, Marion and Tyrone are all dreamers and cocaine and heroin users, who fantasize about raising themselves up and making it big. Harry’s mother, Sara, played by an incomparable Ellen Burstyn, tunes in every day to her favorite game show and, when a phone call invites her to eventually become a contestant, she embarks on a weight-loss plan involving amphetamine pills which cause her to hallucinate and lose her sanity.
Their four lives devolve into an unstoppable spiral of addiction, shame and guilt, all of which is portrayed with raw ferocity, leaving little to the viewers’ imagination. Harry’s arm becomes infected because of unsanitary needles and is amputated; Marion turns to prostitution to pay for her addiction; and Sara, who would have given her son the world if she could, instead ends up senseless in a hospital, undergoing electroconvulsive therapy.
Viewers are left astonished and emotionally drained by the film’s end, but “Requiem,” thanks in part to its harrowing and graphic violence, sends out a profound warning that this could happen to anyone, a sentiment all recovering addicts would no doubt echo.
Image by David Shankbone from Flickr’s Creative Commons