The opioid and drug crisis continues across America. While steps to help families struggling with addiction have found some solace, reliance on these medications becomes a lifelong struggle. Even if someone in your family understands their problem, those suffering from the illness will need to battle their entire life. After a successful run at the Berlinale, Stay Awake debuts at the 2023 Florida Film Festival. CStay Awake resonates by capturing the all-too-common vision of drug addiction’s toll on a family in stark terms.
Brothers Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) and Derek (Fin Argus) struggle to care for their mother (Chrissy Metz). Her addiction results in constant trips to the hospital. As they save her time and time again, they’ve each put their lives on hold. With Ethan receiving college acceptance letters and Derek earning acting opportunities, their relationship with their mother reaches a breaking point.
Directed by Jaime Sisley, Stay Awake succeeds because of its intricacies in how relationships shift and change when a family confronts addiction. Each brother holds different relationships with their mother, which in turn affects their relationship to each other. Sisley brings these elements out in the screenplay with nuance and grace. Even as the anger in each brother reaches a boiling point, the direction keeps us focused on the emotional toll of their experience.
Both Oleff and Argus bring these nuances out in their performances. The desperation shown by Argus becomes easy to relate to. Even as his character makes bad decisions, Argus draws out empathy. He carries the haunted look of a person struggling with the weight of life. If not for his brother, he would crumble. Oleff delivers a more outwardly passionate performance. His struggle with his sexuality, future college prospects, and anger watching his brother waste his life sets up an excellent foil to Argus. This relationship drives the Stay Awake, and each brother brings out the best in their role.
Metz will draw raves, and in minimal screentime, she brings out the self-hatred of someone struggling with addiction. She brings a different kind of emotional baggage into the light, which helps us understand each view. However, her character’s actions become so frustrating Sisley makes it difficult to root for this mother. Metz makes the best of this unlikable role and breaks through that challenge with her excellent performance.
While Stay Awake provides nuance, especially in its third act, the first two acts play out rather predictably. At times, one could reasonably say it borrows from Sundance films of the mid 1990s. The themes and struggles of these boys has been seen many times on screen. While Sisley ultimately draws out unique aspects of the story, the familiarity in other beats makes Stay Awake feel too predictable.
Yet with strong performances and that nuance, Stay Awake surprises as a capable indie drama. The three central performances showcase the talent on screen, especially for Argus and Oleff. Sisley’s eye for establishing shots and emotional cinematography should excite producers for his future work. With a more unique story, his future could be very bright.