Over the last couple years, we have taken great strides in the way we perceive and understand substance addiction. The ongoing opioid crisis – declared a national emergency in late 2018 – has especially shed light on the dangers of substance abuse and the reality of addiction as a disease. Coupled with a heightened state of cultural awareness across the country, and greater mindfulness of others’ feelings and circumstances, it’s no wonder why Hollywood has started to get addiction right.
If you are looking for movies about substance abuse and addiction, you might find yourself scrolling through a very long list. However, if you are looking for movies that actually get substance abuse and addiction right, there are only a handful that make the cut. Below, we list some of the more recent movies about substance abuse and addiction that stood out to us here at Turnbridge. We also reflect on each below. (Spoiler alert.)
6 Balloons (2018)
Drug addiction is a compulsive and complex disease of the brain. It takes over a person’s ability to make rational decisions and exhibit self-control. But addiction stretches much further. Sometimes, it can also cloud an addict’s loved ones’ ability to make sound decisions regarding his or her health. Rather than helping, many loved ones find themselves enabling the addiction instead.
The Netflix drama, 6 Balloons, captures this dynamic exactly. And like addiction, it is difficult to watch at times. The film follows Katie (Abbi Jacobson), a young woman who is trying to help her heroin-addicted brother, Seth (Dave Franco), into a detoxification center. Seth, who suffers harsh opioid withdrawal symptoms throughout the movie, had recently relapsed with his six-year-old daughter in his care. Out of unconditional love for her brother, Katie does all she can to navigate the relapse, driving to different detox centers throughout the night, running into issues with health insurance, and ultimately finding herself buying drugs on the street so that her brother will no longer suffer. Seth promises to get clean after that point, but just needs drugs to “get through the night.” The film’s run time falls just under 1h 15min, and feels like a brief chapter in what will be a long road to recovery for Seth.
Actor Dave Franco says he took this role because it offered a unique look at addiction. In an interview with People Magazine, he explains, “We’ve all seen movies about heroin addicts before, but I’d never seen one about a heroin addict who came from an upper-middle class family and seemingly has no reason to resort to these hard drugs.” It was not about the poor, depressed, or abandoned “addict” we often see on TV. The issues that his character faces are much more complex, showing us that there is more than one depiction of addiction. Anyone, of any background, can become addicted to drugs.
Ben is Back (2018)
Substance abuse and addiction does not just affect the user – it affects his/her loved ones, as well. We see this in 6 Balloons and we see this even more in the 2018 film, Ben is Back. This movie, portraying only a 24-hour window, highlights the wavering relationship between a mother (Julia Roberts) and her 19-year-old son, Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) who is in recovery from opiate drugs. Ben, after just 77 days in treatment, returns home for an unexpected visit on Christmas Eve. He was reportedly doing well in rehab, and given a holiday pass.
Holly, Ben’s mother, does all she can to ensure her son stays sober during this 24-hour period, and to ensure that he stays safe. But from the beginning, we know this is not going to be an easy task. It’s clear that Holly has been deceived and hurt by Ben’s addiction. While she welcomes her son with open arms, she is wary of what may come. She missed her son, but did not miss what he became when using drugs. We also see this in Ben’s character – while he is energetic and youthful, he shows glimpses of shame, guilt, and embarrassment throughout the film. It also shows honest glimpses into his undignified, drug-using past, and the pain that it brought to everyone involved. Ironically, we learn that Ben, as a teenager, became addicted to painkillers prescribed by his physician. This is an increasingly common issue among doctors and our youth.
Overall, Ben is Back is not just a movie about substance abuse – it is a movie about the devastation that drug abuse can bring on a family, the need for forgiveness and family support in recovery, and the continuous road to recovery for all of those (both addicts and loved ones) touched by addiction.
Beautiful Boy (2018)
While Ben is Back tells the heart-wrenching story of a mother and son, the 2018 film Beautiful Boy follows a father and son on their journey of addiction. This movie breaks the norm, however, in that it tackles methamphetamine (meth) addiction. Meth is a stimulant drug that rarely makes headlines amidst today’s opioid crisis, but still stands as one of the world’s most detrimental and life-threatening drugs. According to a 2018 CDC Report, drug overdose deaths involving methamphetamine more than tripled from 2011 to 2016.
Beautiful Boy recounts the true story of journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his desperate attempt to save his relationship with a son who is half-gone to methamphetamine addiction. Nic (played by Timothee Chalamet) is an academically-gifted teenager who had big plans to go to college, before falling into the addiction cycle. In the movie, the father explains that he imagined his son would “graduate from college and do something amazing. Now I just want him to not die.”
This is a sentiment that many parents of addicts feel at one point or another – their greatest hope being that their child stays safe. Above all, this is what Beautiful Boy sheds light on. The movie is about substance abuse and addiction, sure, but it is more so about what it means to love someone who is addicted to drugs. The movie shows how Nic’s addiction takes his father down with him, and gives us an honest look at the desperation parents often face with a substance-using teen.
What We Can Learn from Movies About Substance Abuse & Addiction
All of the above movies have a lot in common. For one, they are all based on true stories or memoirs, of real families and real addicts who have struggled on the road to recovery. Secondly, all of the above films take “addiction stereotypes” head on. They overthrow what many know as the “typical” addict, and show us that anyone, of any age, of any economic class or upbringing, can become addicted to drugs. They also show us that the road to recovery is never easy, as none of the above movies sugar-coat or gloss-over the nature of this chronic disease called addiction. Finally, these moves show us that substance abuse and addiction do not just affect one aspect of a person’s life. Rather, they affect a person’s relationships, physical health, mental health, and their loved one’s emotional health, as well. And this is just the beginning.
We predict this is just the beginning of many movies to come—many movies that will give us an accurate and honest depiction of addiction and its toils. As the world's awareness about mental health and addiction continues to grow, so does the portrayal of substance abuse and addiction on TV and film.
Movies about substance and addiction can serve as great reminders that addiction is a chronic and complex disease. They can remind us of the darker sides of addiction – the sides that many people do not always recognize when using drugs – and inspire us to get help. For some people in recovery, however, movies about substance abuse can also be relapse triggers.
If you are struggling with a substance abuse disorder or have a loved one in need of drug treatment, please do not hesitate to reach out. Turnbridge is here for you. Call us at 877-581-1793 today.