Three Great Movies About Addiction

With the Oscars just around the corner (in case you’re living under a rock, the 87th annual Academy Awards take place this Sunday, February 22), moviegoers are flocking to theaters around the country, trying to catch up on all the nominated films. For me, the Oscars aren’t just about the movies of the year, though; the season of glitzy awards ceremonies makes me want to revisit all of my favorite movies.

So in the spirit of the season, I’m sharing not just my long-standing favorite films about addiction, but movies I’m looking forward to that deal with addiction. First, though, my faves:

“28 Days” (2000)

The premise of this film is unremarkable: Woman (Sandra Bullock) is addicted to drugs and alcohol. Following a DUI, she’s court-ordered to a rehab facility in lieu of serving jail time. While there, she meets fellow addicts — each more loveable, annoying and screwed up than the last. She wonders, is this motley crew really my best chance of making it through the next 28 days? For me, this movie perfectly captures the rehab experience (at least my rehab experience). It’s not uncommon to spend the first 24 hours of your stint in treatment looking around at the other patients and thinking, I’m not like her; he’s not like me; obviously, this has all just been a huge misunderstanding. And then Steve Buscemi laughs in your face. Because his character — a no-nonsense counselor with a heart of gold — knows that you are exactly like all these crazy addicts and you do, in fact, belong in treatment. Bullock’s performance of coming to grips with the reality of her addiction, as well as what she needs to do to get and stay sober, is compelling.

“Thanks for Sharing” (2012)

Three Great Movies About AddictionSex is everywhere. On billboards, on television, walking down the street and lurking in the grocery store. At least, that’s how it feels to most of the main characters in “Thanks for Sharing,” each of whom is struggling with sex addiction. Unlike many addictions, recovery when you’re a sex addict doesn’t mean abstaining for the rest of your life, of course. As this movie depicts it, sex is within the bounds of recovery if it’s within a committed, monogamous relationship. This is where things get tricky for Adam (Mark Ruffalo). After years of sexual sobriety, he begins a relationship with Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow) and sex is now back on the table (or in the bed, as the case may be). As in “28 Days,” the supporting cast of recovering addicts gives life to an otherwise generic plotline. Sex addiction hasn’t been covered nearly as much in film as substance addiction, of course, but here it falls to the stellar supporting actors to lend something new to the usual recovery narrative; Alecia Moore (AKA the singer Pink) in particular gives an excellent performance. The one dull spot in this otherwise engaging film is Paltrow’s performance (it’s not clear if the character is supposed to be a mix of bland and irritating or if that’s just how Paltrow plays it). The movie’s magic, though, comes it its depiction of how the recovering addicts support each other (and occasionally, how they fail to do so); in this, the performances are largely authentic and gripping.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” (1994)

Don’t let the cheesy title of this moving film — written by Al Franken (yes, that Al Franken) — put you off.  Meg Ryan plays Alice, a suburban mother of two and wife to Michael (Andy Garcia). Early in the film it becomes clear that Alice has a drinking problem and, despite promises to Michael that she’ll stop, she’s unable to follow through. After a particularly ugly and dangerous bender, she agrees to begin inpatient treatment for her alcoholism. We see Alice struggle and then flourish in rehab; we follow Michael as he tries to parent their daughters and keep his job as a pilot. The film is at its best when Alice comes home from rehab. Now that the pattern of Alice causing chaos followed by Michael restoring balance has been broken, the two are forced to look at the dysfunctional dynamic of their relationship and their lives. As most anyone who’s been in an intimate relationship with an addict knows, neither partner is entirely to blame. The brilliance in Franken’s screenplay is the deliberate way in which he builds the tension in the couple’s relationship and then peels back layer after layer to reveal how Alice and Michael became who they are together. As families with recovering alcoholics know, the hardest part of sobriety is typically not getting sober; it’s living sober. Often, the newly sober person occupies a different space in the family than he or she did before and the whole family must adjust to new roles. “When a Man Loves a Woman” doesn’t pull any punches about how difficult that endeavor can be.

Three 2015 Movies I’m Looking Forward To

This year looks to be a promising one for films dealing with addiction. I’m especially excited for I Smile Back,” starring Sarah Silverman and Josh Charles. It’s the story of Laney (played by Silverman in her first lead dramatic role), who appears to be the perfect suburban mother but struggles with a multitude of addictions.  Written by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman (who wrote the screenplay with Silverman in mind), “I Smile Back” premiered at Sundance, where Silverman garnered rave reviews for her performance.

Also premiering at Sundance was “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” a documentary about the late Nirvana musician who struggled with drugs and mental illness before taking his life in 1994. And in March comedian Russell Brand will premiere his new documentary, Brand: A Second Coming.” The film explores the outspoken activist and recovering addict’s life as he “grapples with fame, influence and where we are as a 21st-century society.” In 2014, Brand wrote a documentary about drugs and addiction called “Russell Brand: End the Drugs War.” I’m hoping his latest effort is just as incisive.

(Photo credit: Lionsgate)

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3 Responses to Three Great Movies About Addiction

  1. Avatar
    Invisible Mikey February 19, 2015 at 12:37 pm #

    Those three are all terrific examples. Alcoholism affects so many and has for so long that thousands of good movies include it as a sub-plot or include drunk characters even if it isn’t the main subject. Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses are both more than 50 years old but still powerful to watch. I think where you are in your own recovery process also influences what works of art will seem more personally relevant. Between 1971-1978 I worked a Crisis Intervention line. Movies and TV shows helped fill in a lot of gaps when I was inexperienced. I’m more involved with general patient populations now, but knowing about addiction pathology and related family dynamics is still useful when we have to deal compassionately with drug-seeking behavior.

    Here are a few other titles that were particularly helpful in improving my understanding: Clean and Sober, Drugstore Cowboy, Winter’s Bone, and the TV movie about the origins of AA called “My Name is Bill W.”

    • Avatar
      katie February 20, 2015 at 10:24 am #

      Thanks for the suggestions! I have seen (and really enjoyed) my name is Bill W. but I haven’t seen the others–I will definitely check them out!

  2. Avatar
    Carol July 22, 2015 at 3:15 pm #

    Although Cake is not directly about addiction, I believe that it would be a great help to people dealing with PTSD and covering that with the use of substances.

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