Oh awards season. With the Golden Globes upon us, we have officially begun. For me, awards season is the equivalent (I’d guess?) of the Final Four or the Super Bowl or some other sports thing I don’t watch. This time of year brings about dozens of fantastic films that my inner movie addict can’t wait to gobble up. Since the age of 10, I’ve been obsessed and perhaps a little overly invested in the Golden Globes, the Oscars and all of the amazing films they celebrate. This year is no different. It’s a diverse, artistic and provocative group of Oscar hopefuls that cover an array of important topics.
Just don’t expect to see anybody getting sober at the movies anytime soon.
For a look at how we cope (or not cope as the case may be) with addiction and its subsequent fallout, look no further than the highly acclaimed Moonlight. The film, for those who don’t know, is the story of a character named Chiron at three different phases of his life as he tries to come to grips with his sexuality. Among Chiron’s many challenges: his mother, the crack addicted Paula (played by Naomie Harris). She’s a textbook addict: erratic, messy and utterly destroyed by drugs. While the filmmakers do an admirable job of showing her addiction at it’s absolute worst as well as well its impact on her young son, Moonlight never really goes there. Despite the fact that Chiron winds up selling the same drugs that destroyed his mother, Moonlight doesn’t seem to want to get too dirty with the addiction storyline. The film is more about Chiron’s journey as a gay man—though to me it didn’t go deep enough in that department either. Yet perhaps that’s the entire point of Moonlight: by not dealing, things inevitably get worse and sooner or later we have to face who we are.
That is certainly a central theme of Manchester by the Sea, another awards bait movie with Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. This subtle powerhouse of a movie is the epitome of what goes wrong when grief is never faced. Affleck’s character, the hard drinking, fight-starting Lee, is the kind of drunk guy who is clearly destroyed by something from his past (partially caused by being intoxicated, by the way)—to the point that he’s unable to be polite or even do small talk. Clearly, Lee, who is seen in nearly every scene in the film with a beer in his hands, has “issues” in the alcohol department and life gets even more real when he’s forced to come back to the scene of his heartbreak in order to care for his nephew after his father dies. Said nephew’s mother (played by Gretchen Moll) is clearly an alcoholic as well and her disease is shown perfectly by a simple shot of her passed out as her young son is ushered out of the room. This movie has thus far been unfairly labeled by some as a portrait of the sorrows of white men and while that tidy response may work for folks who haven’t been through recovery, to me the movie serves as a powerful cautionary tale of what happens when we don’t deal with our past. Lee is destroyed by his choices and his history and that’s certainly something that I, as an alcoholic, could identify with. Without giving any of the plot away, we leave Manchester by the Sea thinking that Lee isn’t exactly ready to recover and face his demons—including the beers that got him in the mess to begin with.
At least Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea dabble in addiction storylines. The year’s other heavy hitters like Hell or High Water, Fences, Silence and Loving have other thematic fish to fry. As I recently sat and watched La La Land, a lyric about an alcoholic aunt who lived wildly and paid the price stood out to me. Not only is it beautifully sung and perfect for the moment in the movie (which I loved—sorry pessimists and haters!) but it’s a line that in my mind really reflects where we are in film with addiction and alcoholism storylines. It’s a sidebar. It’s a character trait that propels other storylines while not being the actual storyline. Which makes sense, given Hollywood’s spotty if not abysmal track record for dealing with mental illness in film.
Maybe it’s just that alcoholic storylines aren’t trending. Maybe some movie about a drug addict bombed so Hollywood isn’t making them currently. Or maybe, and this seems more likely, movie makers are just behind the curve. After all, for progressive and honest storytelling about addicts, alcoholics and recovery, turn on your television. Shows like Shameless, How To Get Away With Murder, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Mom, Girls and Flaked all have central characters struggling with addiction or in recovery. With films about the suburban heroin epidemic filming now, maybe next year’s conversation about this will be different.
I think about this kind of stuff not just because I’m a movie fanatic as well a sober person but also because I host a podcast that talks about movies that talk about drinking. In researching that show, I’ve watched dozens of films that have alcoholism or addiction as the central theme. Some are groundbreaking (like 1962’s Days of Wine and Roses) and others (like 1987’s Less Than Zero) are laughably bad but one thing is clear: we need these stories. Director Nicolas Roeg once said, “Mirrors are the essence of movies” and as a sober addict and alcoholic, it’s always comforting to see myself in those mirrors. But forget about me; this is vital because maybe someone somewhere is watching a film like Men a Man Loves a Woman and realizing they need to get sober or hearing characters talk about something they get on a primal level but can’t yet articulate themselves.
After all, it took a million little messages for me to get sober. If some of those messages for other people happen to come while they’re nibbling on Junior Mints watching this year’s award winners, then these films have done far more than just entertain.