Based on the critically-acclaimed short film of the same name, Stay Awake tells the story of two young boys on the cusp of adulthood as they maneuver their mother’s undying opioid addiction. Thanks to a trio of phenomenal key performances, writer/director Jamie Sisley crafts a harrowing, realistic portrayal of loving a relative who refuses to love themself. Being only the third movie I have seen in the past two years from the Berline International Film Festival, Stay Awake is one of the most powerful and moving in its roster.
It is starting to become an awful family tradition—driving their mother, Michelle (This Is Us actress Chrissy Metz), to the emergency room, singing songs to her and making her guess the movie title to keep her awake and stable in the car ride over, and then Michelle promising she will change once she is coherent enough to form a sentence. When does the hope for a better future finally become impossible to see? Derek (Clouds actor Fin Argus) is the compassionate, optimistic older brother who puts all of his stock into Michelle’s well-being. Ethan (Wyatt Oleff, Stephen King’s It, I Am Not Okay With This) is pretty much the polar opposite, still in high school but becoming wise to Michelle’s various issues and false promises. Would Michelle’s best fit be at a psych facility, a drug rehab, or none of the above? Is she suicidal, or does she just want to feel good? The eternal questions of how best to help an addict loom large, and there are never easy answers.
We follow both brothers as they try to pursue dreams beyond the foggy haze of their mother’s issues. Derek is an aspiring actor, working at Langford Lanes to pay the bills. With state auditions approaching (and the potential to be a regional spokesperson), Derek might finally have the ambition to pursue his career goals. On the flip side, Ethan’s acceptance into a prestigious college (Brown!) in addition to where he was planning to attend with his longtime girlfriend may spell doom for their relationship. Though he has a girlfriend of two years, I distinctly got the impression that Ethan will be exploring his sexuality sometime in the near future. He has a flirtation with a cute jock at school that pops briefly, but the film’s focus most primarily stays locked upon the tragic, far-reaching effects of the United States prescription drug epidemic.
Between their attempts to resolve the situation with their mom, Derek and Ethan have an incredible sibling bond. The viewer feels the relationship between the two brothers as tangible and vital; their love means happiness for the other’s success, and vice versa. The film carries a humorous undertone that helps to make the first act lighter than the heaviness of the material would have one believe. Chrissy Metz playing a character so deeply flawed was a smart choice, as the actress has an underlying sweetness to her persona. How can one hate Michelle when addiction is not a choice, but a crippling reality for people all around the globe? She still aspires to be the best mom she can be—“I have to make my boys dinner,” she chimes at one point, committed to helping Derek and Ethan live their best life. Underneath the surface, one can feel Michelle’s best self clawing to make her way out.
Fantastic performances abound, with Wyatt Oleff’s Ethan taking on the hefty weight of emotions and horrors. At only 18, Oleff has already proved he is capable of nearly leading a movie. From a short film to a full-length feature, the expansion of this story is entirely necessary and perfectly paced. In fact, I would go so far as to say the only way it could be better is if it was expanded into an HBO miniseries format, or a similar streaming-friendly model of consumption. Prickling with coming-of-age sharpness, Stay Awake leaves the viewer with harsh, but hopeful, messages about interpersonal relationships and addiction.
Stay Awake debuted at the 2022 Berlinale Film Festival.