Director & Screenwriter: Jamie Sisley
Style: Family Drama
Time: 94 minutes
By Mike Szymanski
Although the disease of addiction is rampant throughout small communities throughout America, very few films have truly captured the pain and angst of what it does inside a family than in “Stay Awake.” The frustrations of the two brothers in the movie are issues that anyone can relate to when dealing with the substance abuse of someone very close to them that they seem to have no power over.
Rather than taken through the eyes of the addict, this story is shown through the eyes of the brothers, particularly one brother who needs a mom more than ever, but increasingly realizes he is on his own.
TV’s “This is Us” star Chrissy Metz — who plays the lovable older Kate Pearson in the blockbuster series — is not like you’ve ever seen her before. With this down-and-dirty role, she is deserving of any and all awards for braving this tough unpleasant, yet dramatic, role. She is playing a mom named Michelle who is lost in her pill addiction (although it’s not completely clear what, but it smacks of opioid addiction). It’s not that she is completely non-functional, but she is at a lack of control, and she portrays it tenderly, sympathetically, yet brutally pathetic.
For example, in one extremely tender scene, she wakes up out of her hospital bed and covers up her two sleeping teen boys who have fallen asleep next to her bed after they have dragged her once again to the ER following another overdose. She is sorry, but she still yearns to be a mom. Yet, the boys are on a first-name basis with the admitting staff at the ER in the hospital because of all the times they have taken their mother to it and tried to keep her awake by singing songs from her era and making her guess them.
The two true stars in this are the actors playing the brothers. You’ve seen them before in some show in both of their extensive credits, but they truly shine here as reluctant caretakers to their mom.
Wyatt Oleff plays the older 19-year-old brother Ethan. He’s known for his role in the cult horror hit “It” and the sequel, “It Chapter 2.” In this film, he works at a bowling alley and is swooned over by high school girls while he is trying to win bigger parts on local TV commercials and break into acting.
Fin Argus plays the younger brother, 17-year-old Derek who is known for playing the lead role of Zach in the Disney+ musical “Clouds” and a role on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Derek is the character closest to the actual writer and director Jamie Sisley. He is the youth who wants to be a writer and yet wonders about his family life, his potential future, and his responsibilities in this personal, heart-warming film.
What is beautiful and subtle, too, is that the director also shows how Derek is exploring and realizing a burgeoning sexual interest in guys. It is far from a coming-out story, but it is a slight side plot when Derek seems to be jealous that his long time girl friend is suddenly seeing a guy he yearns for from afar.
But the brothers are worried more about their mom, and every time she swears she won’t disappoint them again, she ends up doing so, in quite heart-breaking ways that will have you tearing up. At one point, Derek confesses he hates his mother, and doesn’t understand why his older brother doesn’t.
This movie premiered earlier this year at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival and it was the only American movie to win any awards at Berlinale — it won two: the German Arthouse Cinema Award and the Generation Youth Jury Special Mention.
Writer and director Jamie Sisley admits that this personal story chronicles his own roller-coaster dealing with his mother’s debilitating addiction to prescription drugs. In the film, Michelle is shown purposefully cutting herself to put blood in her urine sample to insure that the pill-prescribing doctor continues her on her addictive regime.
“As teens, my brother and I tried our best to aid her through relapses, cycle her through treatment centers, and encourage her to seek out a sober lifestyle,” Sisley says. He purposefully avoided telling the story through a victimized addict which is commonly how these stories are told.
“I know the roller-coaster ride that caretakers go on while helping someone they love through their disease,” Sisley says. “In many ways, this film is a love letter to the caretaker.”
He also appropriately adds a touch of levity and humor to a very bleak subject. “Sometimes all you can do is laugh at how truly messed up life can get, especially when you’re a teenager. I think it’s a miracle any of us get through our teenage years in one piece,” the director says.
Sisley remains close to his family, and he says he hopes “Stay Awake” will help challenge the way people think about addiction— especially its impact on families and caretakers.
Sisley takes great care in showing the bleakness of the small Virginia town by giving the movie a heaviness with shallow focus shot on a Steadicam. It brings in the realities of the film, especially harsh moments when Michelle apologizes to her sons yet again and Derek pipes up, “Sometimes what you do really sucks.”
Look for worldwide distribution soon through WME Independent.