Rock bottom looks different in “Stay Awake” than in most films involving addiction, with brothers Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) and Derek (Fin Argus) driving their mother Michelle (Chrissy Metz) out to the local hospital in the middle of the night. Everyone in the car is rather calm about this, even though Michelle is groggy from the pills she’s taken and her boys are trying to lighten up the situation by singing her Nielsson songs she can guess as a sign of life. Both may not quite yet be 20, with Derek hanging around their small town of Langford after high school graduation while Ethan has his eye on leaving following a recent acceptance letter to Brown, but they are the adults in the room having gone through this routine time and again, stuck not knowing a better alternative that would keep her away from pain meds while both have to work but growing more discontent with that burden by the day.
Such youthful wisdom is laced throughout Jamie Sisley’s feature debut, which avoids tipping over into melodrama when the responsibility of taking care of Michelle is more wrenching than seeing her struggle with a seemingly incurable disease. In fact, she stays off-screen for large stretches of “Stay Awake,” eventually admitted into a rehab center but gone long before from the daily activities of Derek and Ethan, who both work – in the latter’s case, in addition to his final semester of school – and any quality time with their mother is inextricably tied to managing her addiction. The absurdity of the situation isn’t lost on Sisley, who finds humor in the increasingly crazy contortions the family goes to keep it together, even though the root issue is crystal clear and when Derek’s aspirations for becoming an actor are given a boost by a coveted audition for a state tourism commercial and the Ivy League comes calling for Ethan, the question becomes more pressing of whether to continue putting Michelle’s interests ahead of their own, as they have for so long.
In narrative terms, “Stay Awake” plays a bit broad, but the details are what makes it stand out as the more hopeful Derek has a greater capacity to be disillusioned by his mother’s stagnant response to treatment than the more even-keel Ethan, whose reluctance to ever be encouraged or truly dismayed ultimately makes him the voice of reason. The sudden loss of their car due to a relatively benign collision is devastating, not portrayed in the obvious terms of limiting their movement when it already wasn’t all that much to begin with, but the math it imposes on the brothers when their budget is so tight, making a bus ticket for Derek’s audition in nearby Richmond seem all but impossible to afford, let alone payments for Serenity Springs, the treatment facility Michelle is admitted into. The neon signs that light up Langford, a town that hasn’t seemed to change much since the 1950s, are often employed by cinematographer Alejandro Mejia to help set the mood for the film where it feels as if life is caught inside one of those fluorescent tubes, radiating just enough for no one to take notice of the energy just waiting to escape.
Although it seems inevitable that Derek and Ethan will leave, it isn’t the given you suspect it to be when Oleff and Argus are so careful about how their mother’s condition weighs on them, both frustrated and uncertain yet not old enough to confidently make a definitive decision and whether or not they depart their small town, this slice of life comes across as far bigger than its setting because of it, a film that feels as if it moves a conversation around the toll of the overprescription of painkillers forward and the families stuck in limbo because of it.
“Stay Awake” does not yet have U.S. distribution.