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5 Great Film Portrayals of Addiction

Ashlee Stumpf, LPC

Being a mental health worker and movie lover can be difficult. Mostly because Hollywood is typically more preoccupied with telling a story than accurately portraying how addiction can impact those addicted and their relationships. Many times, the person with the substance use problem is solely defined by their substance use. Ignoring the complexities, experiences, etc. which makes up a person. Therefore, when I view a film which accurately shows people dealing with addiction, I take notice.

Here are five great film portrayals of addiction:

6 Balloons (2018)

This is movie is about adult siblings where a sister (Abbi Jacobson) is trying to find a detox center for her brother (Dave Franco) who has a heroin addiction. Unlike many movies surrounding addiction, in this one the protagonist is the non-addicted sister. The line between enabling and supporting are brought up quite a lot in this film, which is something family and friends of people with addictions constantly struggle over. Jacobson’s character clearly loves her brother and wants to help, but Franco’s character isn’t always receptive to her help and at times she risks alienating herself from other relationships. The film does a great job of showing there are no easy answers when it comes to addiction whether it is yours or someone else’s.

Smashed (2012)

In this movie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an elementary school teacher with an alcohol use disorder. She is married to Charlie (Aaron Paul) and their relationship mostly revolves around drinking, but when something happens at Winstead’s school she decides she wants to stop. Not only does this movie show the atypically view of a woman getting sober, but it also looks at how her sobriety changes the dynamic of her marriage. Paul’s character loves his wife but has no interest in quitting himself. Can a marriage withstand with one partner sober? Can a partner be supportive to the other’s sobriety while still using? Has do you deal with change in a partner’s priorities? A lot of good conversation topics are bought up in this movie.

Shattered Spirits (1986)

In this film, a father of three (Martin Sheen) has an addiction to alcohol. The movie shows how his substance use has shaped the family dynamic, including his wife enabling him, a daughter trying to be the perfect child to take away any burden, one son rebelling from a lack of structure, and another son retreating into his own world so not to have to deal with the reality of his home life. What sets this film apart from other films about addiction is its focus of how a family can be affect, instead of an individual. There are scenes of the whole family in counseling. The impact on each family member is explored. There is a clear message of sobriety and change being a process requiring everyone’s involvement, not just the person with the addiction.

The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)

You may not expect at film from the 1950’s to have great insight on addiction, but this Frank Sinatra led movie does just that. Sinatra plays Frankie Machine, the best illegal card dealer around who has just returned from a prison drug rehabilitation program. Now clean, Frankie wants to stay sober, but his friends and environment are not supportive. Despite being in black and white, some struggles still ring true; difficulties staying sober without support or aftercare, drug dealers continuously offering free samples, and the overall obstacle of transferring from a controlled environment, like a rehab, to an uncontrolled reality. While there are some old Hollywood principles in the film, like never actually stating Sinatra’s character’s drug of choice, overall, it does well in it’s portrayal of a man trying to stay sober in a difficult environment.

Brittney Runs a Marathon (2019)

While not about an addiction to a substance, the main character Brittney (Jillian Bell) has a habit in indulging in an unhealthy lifestyle to avoid taking accountability for herself. That being a reason many people start using substances. In the film, Brittney is a partygoer with low self-esteem, body issues, and feels as if her life is not going anywhere. When challenged by her doctor to get healthier Brittney begins jogging and eventually decides to (you guessed it) run a marathon. To reach her goal, Bell’s character has to change her lifestyle and beliefs about herself. Again, while the film is not technically about addiction, there are parallels including the hardship of trying to make a change, the importance of a support system, and difficulty of accepting you are worthy of support. All parts of the recovery process.

While in no way a complete list, these are five films which demonstrate the complexity of addiction. Feel free to watch any of them and give your opinion. Or give a recommendation of a movie you believe accurately shows what it is like to have a substance use disorder. Addiction affects us in different ways.

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