Tuesday, February 22, 2022



“Stay Awake” is a sweet, sweet movie that focuses on the complicated lives of brothers Ethan (17)  and Derek (19) as they try their best to navigate the pressures of teenage life while tending to their mother’s debilitating prescription drug addiction and her desire to kill herself — which she masks time and time again. 

Based on the filmmaker Jamie Sisley’s adolescence growing up in small-town America, “Stay Awake” is a personal exploration of the horrors that families endure while trying to help their addicted loved ones with a disease that affects millions every day.

Our narrators into this crazy world are the younger, sensitive, and sexually confused Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) and the elder Derek (Fin Argus), an aspiring actor with charm and good looks. When the story begins it’s Ethan's senior year of high school, a straight-A student without effort, he works afternoons working 

at an ice cream shop. But the boys' nights are different because they keep transporting their “Ma,” Michelle (Chrissy Metz, best known for “This Is Us”), to the hospital for emergency treatment where she constantly relapses. Seriously, this is like her every day. 

Can you imagine this level of burden on the shoulders of two, young men? It’s painful to watch. Derek seems to love his mother more or perhaps loves himself less? It’s hard to say because he seems at home working in the town bowling alley only half inspired to land local commercials. Here’s the thing, he’s good-looking enough to have a shot at more, but he’s tettered to a drowning addict who happens to be his beloved “Ma”. 

Ethan’s in a similar boat but I think he’s more concerned about his brothers’ life than his mothers. He learns early that he’s earned a full ride to Brown University, as well as an acceptance to a local tech school. The choices are tricky: Should grab life by the brass ring and choose the Ivy League school and leave the addicted Ma on Derek, or smash his dreams into a billion pieces and stay close to home?

There is nothing remotely charming about living with addiction, and when it’s the caregiver — the mother — it piles on layers upon layers of complicated life lessons. Questions fill the mind like popping corn when you are forced to monitor and support grown people like they are children. That’s the life of these two very kind-hearted brothers. They take on the daunting task of being the caretakers to a mother who overdoes over and over again like it’s some kind of sick game. Do these young men deserve a better life? Of course, they do. 

That’s the tricky business of trying to balance life. How do these young men understand how to prioritize their own desires over their mothers. These are some of the major issues that are at the core of Sisley’s wonderfully crafted film. 

And the kicker (and the sadness) is that their mother is getting the prescription drugs from a local doctor who doesn’t even bother to question her patterns. 

Here Sisley, who directed and wrote the film gets it right because he’s lived it himself. The film is loosely based on his mothers’ addiction. There is always an air of suspense that lingers like burning smoke when addicts attempt to stay sober — and the filmmaker doesn’t disappoint in giving us some insight into that feeling. 

It’s also important to note that this is the directors' feature debut and he’s coming out of the gate — swinging. He’s someone to keep a close eye on. 

Kuddos to Sisley’s ability to find actors with such chemistry. They are a joy to watch. The psychological complexity comes from the lives of the brothers. They are hard to look away from. There are inner storylines in every movement these young men make. A walk isn’t just a “walk” and a beat, a moment to reflect carries with it a weight. Sisley again — gets it to spot on right — in his illustration of what addiction is like for the families who become victims of emotional “friendly fire”. 

Here are the brutal facts. Addiction is like a hurricane on a rampage sucking everyone into its twisting vortex.

Now some critics might comment that we never know why Ma is an addict. That’s the thing and again, the director-writer gets it right. We don’t know why addicts are suicidal? We don’t know what they want to kill themselves so to my mind, again, Sisley is focused on the truth he knows, and sadly so do millions of others. 

There is a question in my mind that the doctor who is prescribing Ma’s pills should know better and do better but she lies and tricks him. She actually cons him into writing a prescription by giving him a urine sample with a drop of blood from her punctured fingertip. The director does not name the actual drug but you get the sense that maybe the doctor deals in under-the-table pain killers. 

“Stay Awake” demonstrates the talent of director-writer Jamie Sisley who is, in my mind, an exciting new find!

He not only helps us understand the collateral damage surrounding addiction, but leaves us with just the amount of hope. 

Director/writer: Jamie Sisley.

Producers: David Ariniello | Shrihari Sathe (produced by) | Eric Schultz (produced by) | Kelly Thomas

Worldwide Distributor: WME Independent.

Starring Chrissy Metz, Wyatt Oleff, Fin Argus, Albert Jones, Cree Cicchino - and, Quinn McColgan.

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