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Holding on and letting go in Stay Awake

When a parent spirals into addiction, where do the children go?

A still from the film Stay Awake. (Source: Alejandro Mejia)

Most films which deal with bare-knuckle addiction of any sort — alcohol, drugs, porn — view the world from the addicts’ point of view. While of course their story is primary, what usually goes missing is the story of their loved ones. Very often, addicts are oblivious to the needs and wants of others. Caregivers bear the brunt, constantly having to shift and adjust, so much so that they feel out of control and overwhelmed.

Stay Awake, which won a Special Jury Mention at the just concluded 72nd Berlinale, where it premiered in the Generation 14plus section, is one of those rare films which trains the lens on the familial support system of the person with the addiction. Brothers Derek, 19, and Ethan, 17, live in a small town in the US. They are, in many ways, like many others their age: doing the dating thing, going bowling, filling college application forms, and so on. But they are also different, in that they are primary caregivers to their prescription-drug-addict mum, whom they have to keep hauling out of near-lethal zones.

A still from the film Stay Awake. (Source: Alejandro Mejia)

One of the things they have learnt is to try keeping their mother awake, as they rush towards the hospital. The deeper the drift into sleep, the harder it is to bring her back. We see Ethan and Derek trying desperately to keep their mother, and themselves, afloat. How free can you be when you are so tied to someone who has no impulse control, especially when the person is your mum? What kind of future can you dream of?

Writer-director Jamie Sisley is clearly someone who has lived this life, which leads to the startling authenticity in his film, with moving performances from Fin Argus and Wyatt Oleff, who play the brothers, and Chrissy Metz as the mother. In the press notes, Sisley talks of his own mother’s addiction, and how he and his brother dealt with it. He knows what it is to hate and love at the same time, how hard it can be to be “normal” with other people when the one person responsible for you has abdicated all responsibility. When it is a parent who is an addict, all conventional notions of parenting are thrown out of the window: growing up not knowing what it is like to be “looked after” can leave you bereft. Codependency is a swamp, and it can cause a crushing inability to create and cherish other relationships.

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Producer Shrihari Sathe told me how intrigued he was with Sisley’s layered, deeply felt characters. Stay Awake walks the tough tightrope between facile sympathy and over-romanticisation. With well-judged empathy, it tells us that no one willingly wants to be an addict, and absolutely no one signs up to be a caregiver. The film provides no glib answers, but does something important: it focusses on the ecosystem around an addict, which gets more and more fractious and fragile with each bout, and the emotional cost of letting go, while staying connected.

First published on: 24-02-2022 at 05:05:10 pm
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