“Stay Awake” – 2022 Berlinale Film Festival review

Rock Bottom is different in “Stay Awake” than most addiction movies, with brothers Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) and Derek (Fin Argus) driving their mother Michelle (Chrissy Metz) to the local hospital in the middle of the night. Everyone in the car is pretty quiet about it, even though Michelle is groggy from the pills she’s taken and her boys try to lighten the situation by singing her Nielsson songs which she can guess as a sign of life. The two may not be in their 20s yet, with Derek hanging out in their small town of Langford after graduating from high school while Ethan plans to leave following a recent acceptance letter at Brown, but it was the adults in the room who went through this routine period. and again, stuck without knowing a better alternative that would keep her away from painkillers while both have to work, but growing more and more unhappy with that burden day by day.

Such youthful wisdom is present throughout Jamie Sisley’s feature debut, which avoids veering into melodrama when the responsibility of caring for Michelle is more heartbreaking than watching her battle a seemingly incurable disease. In fact, she stays off-screen for long stretches of “Stay Awake,” eventually being admitted to a rehab facility, but absent long before from the day-to-day activities of Derek and Ethan, who both work — in the latter’s case, in addition to her last semester of school – and any quality time with their mother is inextricably tied to dealing with her addiction. The absurdity of the situation is not lost on Sisley, who finds humor in the family’s increasingly mad contortions to stay together, even though the fundamental problem is crystal clear and Derek’s acting aspirations are spurred by a coveted audition for a state tourism ad and as the Ivy League calls Ethan, the question becomes more pressing as to whether to continue to put Michelle’s interests ahead of others. theirs, as they have for so long.

In narrative terms, “Stay Awake” plays a little loose, but it’s the details that set it apart, as the more optimistic Derek has a greater ability to be disappointed by his mother’s stagnant response to treatment than the more optimistic Ethan. balanced, whose reluctance to be encouraged or truly appalled makes him the voice of reason. The sudden loss of their car due to a relatively minor collision is devastating, not described in obvious terms of limiting their movements when it wasn’t that much to begin with, but the calculations it puts on the brothers when their budget is so tight, getting a bus ticket to Derek’s audition in nearby Richmond seems nearly impossible to afford, let alone the payments for Serenity Springs, the treatment center Michelle is admitted to. The neon signs that illuminate Langford, a town that hasn’t seemed to change much since the 1950s, are often employed by cinematographer Alejandro Mejia to help set the mood for the film where we have the impression that life is taken inside one of these fluorescent neon lights. tubes, radiating just enough that no one notices the energy just waiting to escape.

While it seems inevitable that Derek and Ethan will leave, that’s not why Oleff and Argus are so cautious about how their mother’s condition weighs on them, both frustrated and uncertain but not old enough to confidently make a final decision and whether or not they leave their small town, this slice of life appears far larger than its setting because of it, a film that feels like it’s shifting a conversation around the balance sheet of overprescribing painkillers forward and families stuck in limbo because of it.

“Stay Awake” does not yet have distribution in the United States.