Powerful Struggles: A Gripping Tale of Addiction & Redemption in Stay Awake

Director: Jamie Sisley
Cast: Wyatt Oleff, Fin Argus, Chrissy Metz, Cree Cicchino, Quinn McColgan, Albert Jones, Lorrie Odom
Running time: 94 mins

The debut feature from writer-director Jamie Sisley, this emotionally engaging drama explores the impact of prescription drug addiction on a small town family. Superbly acted, with a sharply observed script, it marks out Sisley as a talent to watch.

Drawn from Sisley’s own experiences as a teenager, the film is set in present-day Langford, Virginia, where teenage brothers Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) and Derek (Fin Argus) are reaching the end of their tether, after continually having to drive their mother, Michelle (Chrissy Metz) to hospital, following her latest overdose of prescription drugs. Eventually, they manage to secure Michelle a stint in a rehab clinic, which gives both boys the breathing space to address their own problems.

Sisley’s sensitive script allows the audience to piece together what’s going on for themselves, rather than spelling it all out straight away. The opening is particularly striking, with the boys driving their half-passed-out mother and seemingly cheerfully singing her songs from movies, while trying to get her to guess the movie – nobody actually says the words “stay awake”, but we quickly realise that’s the purpose of the singing.

The script also avoids naming the drugs in question, or even showing Michelle actually taking the drugs, so we don’t immediately grasp the true nature of her addiction. However, the impact on the boys is clear, as they deal with a complex array of emotions, including guilt, fear and love, as well as a sense of exhaustion.

Ethan and Derek’s own problems are equally compelling, because there’s a perpetually overhanging sense of guilt that their mother’s condition is holding them both back at a crucial time – Ethan is about to head off to college, while Derek wants to pursue a career as an actor in something other than local TV commercials, but they’re both stuck in place as their mother’s primary caregivers.

The performances are superb, across the board. Oleff and Argus create a believeable bond as the two brothers, while Metz is heart-breaking as Michelle, particularly in the scenes with her counsellor, Dennis (Albert Jones), where she confesses that she knows she has failed as a mother. There’s also strong support from Quinn McColgan and Cree Cicchino as Ethan and Derek’s respective girlfriends.

Ultimately, this is a sharply observed and quietly moving indie drama that’s well worth seeking out, thanks to a thoughtful script and compelling performances from its three leads.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Matthew Turner

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  • Matthew Turner

    A lifelong film fanatic, Matthew Turner (FilmFan1971) is a London-based critic and author, as well as the co-host of Fatal Attractions, a podcast on erotic thrillers. His favourite film is Vertigo and he hasn't missed an episode of EastEnders since 1998.