While family dramas tackling drug addiction tend to deal with parents grappling with what’s best for their afflicted teens — “Beautiful Boy” and “Ben Is Back” among recent examples — “Stay Awake” perceptively flips the script. As presented from the vantage point of a pair of small-town brothers who selflessly serve as caregivers for their opioid-dependent mother, writer-director Jamie Sisley’s autobiographical first feature strikes a genuine, sobering chord.
For 15-year-old Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) and his 17-year-old brother, Derek (Fin Argus), daily life in rural Langford, Va., often involves tracking down their pill-popping single mom, Michelle (Chrissy Metz), and distracting her from passing out by loudly singing movie songs until they can get her to the ER on time. Despite their tireless devotion, the endless cycle of hospitalization/rehab/relapse can’t help but take its toll on their own emotional and social development, their young lives burdened by the weight of diminishing hope and fresh disappointment.
An aspiring actor, the personable Derek has his sights set beyond the regional commercial gigs he’s currently landing, but is afraid to venture too far from his job at the local bowling alley should he have to rescue their mother again. No longer keen to play the part of martyr is sensitive Ethan, who has been accepted to Brown University on a full scholarship and has come to the realization that continually picking up the pieces of those shattered hopes for their mother’s recovery ultimately isn’t doing any of them any favors. Although the situation reaches a point of reckoning during another Michelle rescue mission, the film isn’t so naive as to suggest a happy ending looms in the immediate.
Sisley’s cast is uniformly excellent. Metz, best known from her Emmy-nominated turn as Kate Pearson on “This Is Us,” never allows her character to stoop to self-pity or placing blame, freely admitting that she has a sickness for which she has been unable to find a lasting cure. “I want to be a good mom … but every time I see them I’m reminded that I’ve failed,” she matter-of-factly tells her counselor during her latest stint at an addiction recovery center. As her “parentified” sons, both Oleff and Argus quietly, thoughtfully convey their shared and private frustrations and fears as they navigate their personal rites of passage into adulthood.
Built upon his 2015 short of the same name, which also had its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, Sisley’s keenly insightful film (actually shot in New York state) obviously comes from a deeply personal place in his own past, one that has little interest in settling for familiar screen tropes or pat resolutions. Refusing to shy away from uncomfortable questions — such as, at what juncture does the caretaker effectively become the enabler? — the potent “Stay Awake,” offers a compassionate but clear-eyed take on a sadly all-too-familiar family dilemma.
Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Starts May 26 at Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles