12 of the Best Movies That Deal Frankly With Addiction and Recovery

12 of the Best Movies That Deal Frankly With Addiction and Recovery
Screenshot: Wild/Searchlight Pictures
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HBO just dropped the trailer for the second season of its acclaimed teen drama Euphoria. It’s been a long wait between seasons — though there have been a couple of specials in the meantime, but the last regular-series episode aired over two years ago. The show deals with frankly (very frankly) with multiple aspects of modern life among a cast of characters in their late teens (at least at the outset), lead by Zendaya as Rue Bennett, who is already working through recovery at 17.

Addiction and recovery are potent sources of drama, and are thus frequently portrayed in media. They’re also easy to get wrong: to veer into melodrama, or to reach for easy answers and unearned conclusions. There are few aspects of human nature more complicated than addiction disorders, and our media isn’t always up to the challenge.

Some movies, though, get things right — at least in part. These 12 movies aren’t perfect in their depictions, but they do shine a light on aspects of addiction and recovery that reflect real life, if not quite capturing it with 100 per cent accuracy. Especially during the holidays, a time of year when struggles with addiction can feel especially acute, these movies feel especially significant. (In discussing the ways in which these films deal with recovery, I’m going to reveal some plot details, but these aren’t the kinds of films that can really be “spoiled.”)

Where to watch: Binge

Flight (2012)

Robert Zemeckis’ Flight stars Denzel Washington as “Whip” Whitaker, a pilot who gains a Sully-esque reception after he (relatively) safely lands his out-of-control aircraft in a field. Results of a post-crash blood test reveal that he’d consumed significant amounts of alcohol while in flight without showing his extensive cocaine use the night before. Things don’t get better for him when he arrives at an NTSB board meeting drunk, but, wracked with remorse, he finally comes clean and admits the full extent of his problem. That rock-bottom moment leads to a prison sentence — time that Whitaker uses to work on his recovery from addiction. A compelling portrait of a “functioning” alcoholic.

Where to stream: Netflix

The Lost Weekend (1945)

The Lost Weekend was thoroughly controversial upon release — pressure from the liquor industry nearly got the film shelved. It was the first time that a mainstream Hollywood film had addressed alcoholism, and the timing was right: American soldiers returning from fighting in World War II were beginning to confront the challenges of both post-war trauma and readjustment to life on the home front, and may were struggling. Post-prohibition, alcohol was freely available and a socially acceptable vice, particularly for men. The Lost Weekend stars Ray Milland as a New York writer on a five-day bender, giving a performance that’s occasionally overwrought but appropriately harrowing. The result was one of the most awarded movies in history.

Milland’s character, at various points in the film, suggests that his writer persona and his “drunk” self are two different people, while the movie makes clear that, ultimately, acknowledging that they’re inseparable is the only way forward. Glimmers of hope comes with Milland’s agreeing that he needs to takes steps toward recovery, and also in his plan to write a book about his experiences.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Beautiful Boy (2018)

Based on twin memoirs from father David Sheff and son Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy stars Timothée Chalamet as Nic, a teen whose methamphetamine and heroin use threaten his own life, and drive a wedge between himself and his father, played by Steve Carrell.

The film deals particularly well with the ups and downs of addiction — in real life, the narrative is rarely as simple as a downward spiral followed by a long but successful recovery. Nic struggles over a period of years, with stints in rehab interspersed with long stretches of dependence and more than one overdose, before he nears something that looks like a prolonged recovery. It’s a good reminder that addiction is a lifelong condition, and the work to battle it takes place every single day.

Where to stream: Prime Video

Permanent Midnight (1998)

Another movie based on an addiction memoir, this influential indie film from 1998 (you can tell it’s the ‘90s by the prominent placement of “Smack My Bitch Up”) stars Ben Stiller as novelist Jerry Stahl, who recounts his life and struggles with addiction in-between frequent pursuits of sex. Stahl’s narrative isn’t entirely nightmarish, and his career even goes pretty well in spite of, and maybe because of, his drug use (he does lots of cocaine). It’s a reminder that out-of-control addiction often looks fine from the outside, and can seem fun…until it isn’t. It’s only over time that Jerry’s addiction becomes a battle.

Where to stream: Prime Video

A Star is Born (2018)

Any of the Star is Born movies could work, but the most recent version hits particularly hard as a portrait of addiction in a relationship. Bradley Cooper’s Jackson is a popular singer with alcohol and prescription drug addiction disorders. As his career takes a downward turn, his partner Ally’s (Lady Gaga) takes off, causing him insecurity that feeds a further slide. Her support isn’t enough in this case, and recovery isn’t in the cards.

Where to stream: Prime Video

Clean & Sober (1988)

Before everyone discovered he could do more than just wacky comedy Batman, Michael Keaton had already done impressive work in Clean & Sober, a grim, but ultimately inspiring story of Daryl Poynter (Keaton), a real estate salesman with a cocaine addiction. As his life slowly spirals completely out of control, Darryl eventually finds his way to a 12-step program, and the movie makes an impressive, and unusual, commitment to following that process through. The beginning of recovery is where many movies end, but Clean & Sober explores its incredibly challenging day-to-day.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Wild (2014)

The emphasis here is on recovery, as the film based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir (and starring Reese Witherspoon) focuses on a healing journey — a literal one, in this case, involving a 1,770 km hike along the Pacific Coast Trail. Strayed’s life is recounted in flashback, revealing that her mother’s death from cancer encouraged Cheryl’s heroin and sex addictions, which ultimately destroyed her marriage. I’m not sure there’s any recovery program that would suggest untrained excursions into the wilderness as a treatment for addiction disorders, but it seems to have helped the real-life writer, and it’s certainly tempting to consider that this type of gauntlet might leave you forever changed for the better. (But get some training first.)

Where to stream: Disney+

Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)

Chloé Zhao’ directorial debut focuses less on any singular instance of addiction, instead dealing (in large part) with the consequences of alcohol addiction on an entire community — in this case among the Ogala Lakota community on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Lead character Johnny (John Reddy) makes money in just about the only way he can, by smuggling in the alcohol that not only puts him in danger of legal consequences, but also from rival gangs. Alcohol also helps to fuel the community’s decline, particularly in moments when drink and violence intersect. Ultimately, Johnny is forced to choose between walking away from the only home he knows, or making a choice to stay and do better.

28 Days (2000)

If there’s a slightly more whimsical side to addiction and recovery, it’s in the Betty Thomas-directed, Sandra Bullock-starring 28 Days (not to be confused with the one about the zombies). Bullock plays a newspaper columnist who never sees the damage that her drinking causes to others until she’s forced to. For her, it’s all a lot of fun, and surely other people must see her antics as charming. At her sister’s wedding, she offers a mean-spirited toast, accidentally destroys the wedding cake, and steals a limo that she then drives into a house. She goes to her 28-day rehab when forced to by the court, and only then starts to learn the hard truth — about how damaging, but also tiresome, her actions have been. It’s not the most nuanced take on the subject, but the cast is impressive (Steve Buscemi, Viggo Mortenson, Elizabeth Perkins, etc.) and Bullock is in top form.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

First, it must be said that there’s not much sense of successful recovery from alcoholism and drug dependence in this star-studded adaptation of the autobiographical Eugene O’Neil play, but it does deal with some key elements of recovery, particularly the importance of recognising the existence of a problem and facing it forthrightly, often through talk therapy. Where the Tyrone family fails on one particularly fraught day is in the hashing out of mental health and addiction disorders without professionals; they instead do so within the confines of a family with an extremely difficult dynamic. With mutual hurt and recrimination, the Tyrones wind up talking in circles — bringing past pain into the light only to see it weaponised to cause further pain.

Though the movie doesn’t offer much hope for the family, there are the seeds of a healthier future for at least some of them, in that they’re all fully unburdened of secrets by the end. It’s a bit grim, but the cast (Katherine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, and Dean Stockwell) is one of the best ever assembled.

Where to stream: Prime Video

Rocketman (2019)

To his credit, Elton John reportedly fought back against attempts to curtail scenes involving drugs (and sex) from this fantastical musical biography, suggesting that they were at the heart of his rise and near-fall during an era when rock-star mythology didn’t just accept excess, it encouraged it. The framing device involves John describing his life in flashback while in an addiction rehabilitation session, emphasising the centrality of addiction to his story. It’s not too much of a spoiler to to note that John has been sober for decades, so it’s very much a hopeful picture of recovery (though having money is, doubtless, both a hindrance and a huge help in that regard).

Where to stream: Prime Video

Ray (2004)

Though it’s not central to the narrative, precisely, Ray Charles’ two-decade-long addiction to heroin runs through much of the film, and forces an important reckoning at a critical moment in his career. It’s only when he’s sentenced to rehabilitation and nearly loses his musical career that he’s forced to face both the consequences of his addiction, and the past trauma that helped to lead him down that road, that he’s able to move forward.

Where to stream: Apple TV

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