Tag: addiction

Ben is Back

Ben is Back (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although occasionally adhering to a few tropes of drug addiction dramas, “Ben is Back,” written and directed by Peter Hedges, provides a realistic look at a specific person who decides to come home from rehab on his 77th day of being sober in order celebrate Christmas with his family. It is a sad story, so knowing when it comes to which elements to amplify when the heart-tugging moments come around, but it is worth seeing because it is willing to stare into the void of drug addiction.

It treats addiction like the disease that it is. Lucas Hedges plays Ben, the son who insists that he is doing much better and is healthier than ever, and Julia Roberts plays Holly as the mother who wants to make her son feel welcome but at the same time extremely wary that the most seemingly insignificant trigger may result in relapse. From the moment the family sees Ben standing near the front door as they pull up on the driveway, one could feel them getting ready to resume carrying the burden they had dropped temporarily. It is an astute decision for the director to keep the camera inside the car for a few more seconds before the would-be happy reunion, as if the family, even subconsciously, is bracing themselves for another rollercoaster ride. They are tired of Ben, but they must try not to show it.

Particularly intriguing is the decision to show how Ben has affected his community. There are dead bodies in the ground and their families are still in deep mourning, some very angry. And so when depressed parents despise Ben’s presence even at church, we may not know them but we empathize with them, too. The screenplay ensures that we are likely to feel how they are feeling if we were in their shoes. Even Ben believes he deserves some kind of punishment, welcoming it even. He feels sorry, deeply sorry, but the sentiment is too late. Corpses have been buried, money have been stolen, there are new addicts on the street thanks to Ben the former drug dealer.

Performances by Roberts and Hedges are highly watchable and emotional. Tight close-ups are employed generously, but the duo are up for the challenge. The latter shows Ben slipping bit by bit while the former portrays Holly as desperately trying to keep up with her fragile son, to ensure that 1) he maintains his sobriety and 2) she be there to catch him when or if he falls. (They made a deal that he could stay home for Christmas but must return to rehab the next day.) She watches him like a hawk, but, as drug addicts do, he manages to find ways to elude her. Even a few seconds matter. The picture makes a point that their relationship—the addict and the supervisor—is a lot of work, exhausting, untenable. And the story unfolds in just over a day. It communicates, with great clarity, a mother’s love for her child.

Carefully paced and unafraid of raw emotions, “Ben is Back” shows that the road to sobriety is labyrinthine—not just for the addict but also for the loved ones who care. Sometimes the right thing to do is the wrong thing when only one or two variables have changed. And sometimes you are just so tired of having to be the constant source of support that you hope that, against all odds, simply being there is enough. And when it isn’t, well, life has a way of pushing us forward.

Being Charlie

Being Charlie (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

Written by Matt Elisofon and Nick Reiner, “Being Charlie” is supposed to be about an eighteen-year-old being forced to get help from drug addiction, but most frustrating is that every so often the screenplay turns away from what drug addiction and rehabilitation truly is. Instead, once in a while we are handed easy laughs and supposedly moving human connections even though these elements appear at wrong times or not yet earned. As a result, the picture, although it offers some effective moments, is, a whole, an unconvincing walk in the shoes of a young person who needs help but neither knows it nor wants it.

The opening scene is one of the film’s shining moments because it is dipped in irony. It gets the viewers excited because the first image of dramatic pictures tends to set the tone for what they hope to convey or accomplish. We see Charlie (Nick Robinson) sitting in front of a birthday cake and surrounded by people. But it might as well have been a scene from a funeral. There is no joy on our protagonist’s face; there is no sadness or annoyance—his expression is simply blank. He is not surrounded by friends or family but of fellow men and women getting treatment. Everyone in the frame is dressed so formally and the light in the room is so dim, it were as if the birthday is a day of mourning.

We consider: Perhaps Charlie’s birthday wish was to be dead.

But herein lies the problem. Throughout the course of the picture, the screenplay consistently fails to provide enough depth when it comes to the people in Charlie’s lives: those important to him because they are biologically connected (Cary Elwes, Susan Misner), those with whom he chooses to form friendships with (Devon Bostick), and those who end up surprising him because, as it turns out, they genuinely care about his well-being (Common). Details matter most in movies about addiction. Otherwise, as is the case here, the work ends up looking and feeling like a cheap imitation.

The movie, middling in quality for the most part, is elevated by two performers. Robinson is convincing as a troubled teen not because he looks rough or tough. On the contrary, he looks handsome and gentle and so it works when Charlie’s resentment and anger—toward his parents, toward the system, toward himself—surfaces and threaten to flood the room. The other performer is Common, playing one of the leaders of the halfway house who is quite tough but fair. Common commands an almost tactile presence that all the other actors here do not have. Most unfortunate is the filmmakers’ failure to recognize that the relationship between Charlie and Travis is the true heart of their material.

Instead, the majority of its running time is dedicated to Charlie and a potential romance with a girl named Eva (Morgan Saylor). Their relationship offers no excitement or tension because we get the impression within the minute they meet that they are not a good fit for one another. In addition, the conflict between Charlie and his father (Elwes) is contrived, heavy-handed, and so ludicrous at times that such a subplot would fit so perfectly in a bad Lifetime movie.

“Being Charlie,” directed by Rob Reiner, would have been a better film if the writers had dared to look drug addiction and recovery straight in the eye and given us unfamiliar notes, rhythms, and observations about the struggles that come with it. It would have been tougher material to swallow but at least it would have been inspired.


Shame (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

On the outside, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seemed like he was living the dream. As a thirtysomething single man living in New York City, he commanded a fancy job, lived in a fashionable apartment by himself, and was very capable of having most women because of his preternatural good looks and charm. But inside, Brandon was a mess. His sex addiction consumed every aspect of his life. Whether he was at work, on the subway, or at home, all he could think about was sex and how he was going to get it. When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), paid him a visit, the control he built for himself was threatened like it had never been before. “Shame,” based on the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan, held a vise grip around the issue that is sex addiction in its first half only to lose vigor toward the final act. Within the first ten minutes, although I found the handful of penis shots quite distracting, it felt almost appropriate because it braced us on what we were about to see. The implication I extracted from it was that it was very easy to get a reaction from seeing a titillating body part. What was difficult, however, was being open-minded, getting into the mind of someone with an addiction, taking him seriously, and perhaps sympathizing with him. As nudity was paraded on screen, the accompanying shots involved Brandon intently starting at a woman on the subway (Lucy Walters). At first, I could relate. I admit that I’ve been on a public transportation and couldn’t help but admire someone due to his or her physicality either from afar or right across front me. But then it began to get creepy when the woman, probably around fifteen years younger than Brandon, returned his look of complete lust. When someone catches me starting, what I tend to do is smile then look away. Instead, the two continued to look at each other so fiercely, like it was a game, to the point where the woman began to get very uncomfortable, as if she sensed that there was something very wrong with this guy who kept looking at her. The evolution from awkwardness to lust to danger was quite riveting and I admired that the director, Steve McQueen, allowed the scene to play out so naturally until the woman felt like she needed to run and escape the situation. I found the movie quite brave. It created an argument that although Brandon–and people who share the same affliction–was addicted to sex, he was still human because he could discern between right and wrong, even though sometimes he was forced to do the right thing, like allowing his sister to stay with him because she had nowhere else to go. Brandon’s struggles in wanting to have a genuine relationship with another person was most beautifully framed by his date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), so different from what he initially thought she was like. I was certain that he went into that date expecting sex at the end of the night. On one of their conversations, there was one question that was brought up that proved, at least to me, that Brandon did want to change. To state that question here, I feel, would do the film a disservice. I wished that Brandon’s relationship with his sister, though mostly involving, didn’t result to such predictability as the material began to wrap up certain strands. The attempt to get us to care felt cheap and off-putting. For a picture so loyal in embedding implications between the lines, the obvious catharsis came off as, at best, out of place. “Shame” did a great job suggesting that there is no cure for sex addiction without one scene taking place in a counselor’s or a psychiatrist’s office. For most people who don’t seek help because they are not aware that they have a problem, there is only another day of trying not succumb all over again.

A Hole in My Heart

A Hole in My Heart (2004)
★ / ★★★★

As his father, Rickard (Thorsten Flinck), and his father’s friend, Geko (Goran Marjanovic), shot an amateur pornographic film in their apartment, Eric (Björn Almroth) retreated to his dark room and listened to heavy metal music. “Ett hål i mitt hjärta” aimed to tackle issues like how addiction to pornography could ruin lives but I’m not sure it was successful in doing so in a meaningful way. The picture showed us graphic images of labial reconstruction surgery, S&M in which Tess (Sanna Bråding), a girl from the streets who wanted to be a successful pornographic actress in America, wasn’t informed of, and sex involving food and vomit. But what was it all supposed to mean? With its style of manic editing, the connection between shocking images and the meaning we were supposed to extract from them weren’t established. While it did have quieter moments of Eric wanting to escape his toxic environment but ultimately couldn’t do anything to get away from his father (he didn’t seem to have many friends), it was difficult to sympathize with him at times. For instance, when his dad was sleeping, Eric woke him up and claimed that the kitchen was on fire when it really wasn’t. And when his dad asked for water to drink, Eric took it from the toilet. It was disgusting behavior which was almost unwatchable as Rickard and Geko pressuring Eric to fire an air gun so that he could feel more like a man. I felt humiliated for all of the characters. Just when I felt a glimmer of hope during Tess and Eric’s conversation, the material jumped back to its repetitive technique of barraging its audiences with strong images but with little meaning. Toward the end, a fact was revealed about Rickard which was supposed to explain his fixation toward pornography and violence. However, since the journey toward the revelation was deeply unfocused, it felt more like an excuse than an explanation. “A Hole in My Heart,” directed by Lukas Moodysson, is easy to criticize because of the way it was shot and edited. Perhaps it was done on purpose because it strived to comment on our consumption of reality television. In any case, I don’t mind the technical aspects as much as long as it had a defined center. Its approach was bold and it took some wild risks in attempting to explain how one person’s dysfunction could enable other people’s dysfunction. But without exploring the increasing distance between the tragic characters, especially the lack of bond between father and son, either we don’t feel closer to them in the end or we end up just not caring about them.

Get Him to the Greek

Get Him to the Greek (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) was a rock star at the peak of his career but the negative reviews of his most recent album called “African Child,” labeled as offensive and racist, forced him to retreat from the spotlight. Enter Aaron (Jonah Hill), an intern for a major record company, when he was assigned by his boss, the tough Sergio Roma (Sean Combs), to take Aldous from England and accompany him to the Los Angeles Greek Theatre for a comeback concert. This proved to be a difficult task because Aldous loved to party, do drugs, and deviate from the original plan. “Get Him to the Greek,” directed by Nicholas Stoller, was hilarious during its first thirty minutes. Celebrity cameos seemed to come from everywhere; I liked it best when I didn’t know what hit me and I was forced to think, “Did that just really happen?” Unfortunately, the rest of the picture failed to measure up. Although there was mayhem left and right, the chaos wasn’t interesting because it had the same type of humor all the way to the finish line. I didn’t mind that it was raunchy. I laughed at some scenes like when Aaron felt forced to become a drug mule at the airport. I understood that it wanted to poke fun of stars like Britney Spears with their intense relationship with the media and their fans. It also wanted to make fun of us for liking bad pop music reflected by Aldous’ ridiculous song lyrics. Eventually, I realized there was something missing. The picture had to draw a line between fun and serious issues. It had the capacity to change things up as Aaron was forced to be in increasingly uncompromising situations. A person recently plucked from an ordinary life, despite the glamour of the world of celebrity, would eventually question whether it was ethically and morally right for him to enable an artist struggling with an addiction. Toward the end, it attempted to tackle the issue but it felt forced because the journey that Aldous and Aaron took together wasn’t particularly meaningful. They shared some drugs and they eventually learned (or thought they learned) to be comfortable with each other to the point where they agreed to a threesome, but there was not one conversation when they connected as equals. It was always about Aaron catering to Aldous’ fragile ego and that wasn’t friendship. It didn’t even work as a story about a fan and the person he looked up to because moments after Aaron met Aldous, he was perfectly aware that the Aldous in his records didn’t reflect reality. He came to terms with it right away. “Get Him to the Greek” would have been a stronger film without the redemption arc involving the rock star supposedly overcoming his addiction. Because when it tried to be sensitive, it just didn’t feel genuine.

Requiem for a Dream

Requiem for a Dream (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) lived by herself and she spent most of her days watching television. When a caller informed her that she had been selected to appear on television, she became obsessed with the idea of losing weight and wearing her beautiful red dress for the occasion. Her first attempt at dieting didn’t work so she saw a doctor. The so-called doctor prescribed colorful “diet pills” which, unbeknownst to Sarah, were amphetamines. Her addiction reflected that of her son’s (Jared Leto), his best friend (Marlon Wayans), and girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly). Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the film’s approach was to showcase drug addiction as a slow descent to hell. Heavy-handed with its themes, it showed its characters in utter physical and mental pain with little hope of rehabilitation and a better life. On one hand, some of the scenes were well-made. Sara’s hallucinations of the refrigerator attempting to get close to her signified Sara’s subconscious need to eat. It was terrifying, especially when the fridge would appear out of nowhere, but at the same time I found it darkly comedic. I relished the scenes between Burstyn and Leto particularly the one when the son finally found the time to visit her lonely mother. Combined with Aronofsky’s sublime direction, Burstyn’s performance was electric when she expressed to her son what being on television really meant to her. Even I can admit I was on the verge of tears because I really cared for the character she created. Lastly, there was a shot the defined Leto and Connelly’s relationship. When they were laying next to each other on the bed, presumably after sex, there was a split-screen and the camera was fixated on their respective faces. It was meaningful to me because the message I extracted from it was despite the fact that they took up the same space, were looking at each other, and the words they uttered were directed at one another, it wasn’t a meaningful relationship because there was a disconnect between them. As long as they were under the influence of drugs, there would always be that disconnect because the need for the drugs would always be more powerful than their need for each other. That one scene was probably one of the most powerful in the film even though it didn’t show any drugs, just two people talking. I wish the rest of the picture was more like that. In other words, what the film desperately needed was subtlety. Most of the time, I felt like Aronofsky was hitting me over the head with a mallet every time he wanted to get a point across. It wasn’t necessary with people, like me, who can think for themselves and are aware of the pros and cons of drugs. His technique here would most likely appeal more to high school students. Based on Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel, “Requiem for a Dream” was nonetheless a powerful head trip. It was a classic case of unhappy individuals attempting to find happiness elsewhere other than within.


Limitless (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) was a struggling writer in New York. He claimed he had ideas for his book but he was at a loss on how to put them together. He spent most of his days staring at the computer and accomplishing nothing. But his luck turned for the better when he ran into his ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth). Vernon, a former drug dealer, handed Eddie a pill called an NZT48 which allowed the person to use his brain in full capacity. Eddie finished his book in no time but that wasn’t enough. He realized he needed more of the magic pills so he could earn enough money and be set for life. “Limitless,” based on Alan Glynn’s novel “The Dark Fields,” was an entertaining fantasy for about half of its running time. It posed interesting questions about what one man would do if he was given the chance to become the smartest man on the planet. Naturally, finding a cure for diseases like AIDS or finding a solution for world hunger was not one of his priorities. Instead, he decided to borrow money from a thug (Andrew Howard) and forgot to pay him back, got involved with a cunning businessman (Robert De Niro) who was willing to go great lengths to remain at the top of the food chain, and win back the girl who dumped him when he was at his worst. Maybe he wasn’t as smart as the drug led him to believe. While the picture remained energetic throughout, I noticed that half-way through, I began to think about the technicalities involving the drug in question. For instance, what chemical compounds was it made of? Eddie recruited a scientist to make more of the pills and I got the impression that it was relatively simple to make. And given that the drug was able to bind to more receptors in the brain, how was the body able to compensate for the overdrive given that Eddie was consuming the pills like Nerds candy? In the least, I expected him to eat more because the brain needs glucose to function. I understood that it was supposed to be science fiction. However, I wouldn’t have focused on the technicalities if the filmmakers had chosen to stray from the formula they’ve grown accustomed to. Every time Eddie took the drug, the scenery looked happier and brighter. The soundtrack was more upbeat. The temporary happiness was countered by a mysterious man (Tomas Arana) who stalked Eddie. The same set-up was used about five or six times. It was tiresome, lazy, and, most importantly, it didn’t always move the story forward. Characters like the mysterious man and the murdered woman in the hotel were left on the sideline. A handful of questions were left unanswered. The film lightly tackled some of the repercussions of addiction but it ultimately glorified it. On one hand, I thought it was refreshing. Admittedly, when our protagonist was on a high, I laughed at the ridiculous things that happened to him. On the other hand, it felt like a slap in the face of real people struggling with drug addiction. It was supposed to be a cautionary tale but it lacked the gray areas of ethics and morality.