Stay Awake movie review and movie summary (2023)

Derek, the older brother, is an actor who works in local commercials. Ethan is an academic whiz who is about to graduate high school and has been awarded a scholarship to an Ivy League university. In an ideal world, their only concern would be the mixture of anxiety and excitement that comes with the leap into adulthood.

The brothers adored their mother and treated her with warmth and patience, repeatedly taking her to the emergency room after an overdose. They sat in the front seat of the family’s only car and sang old songs to their mother as she dozed off in the back seat on the way to the hospital, forcing her to recognize every tune to make sure she wasn’t drift into oblivion. But the movie slowly lets you know what their dedication costs, like in a scene where Ethan stops by the ice cream shop where he works with his girlfriend Ashley (Quinn McCoglan) and notices his friend Mark (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper) sitting with friends at a table outside. Even without dialogue, you know what Ethan is thinking: I should be with them, but I can’t because of my mom. Things get even more complicated when the family has an accident during one of their trips to the hospital, which highlights the film’s most distinctive quality: the way it sets the family’s problems in the context of a cold no compassionate American society that only cares about the rich and the upper-middle class, in that order.

The crash destroyed the family’s only vehicle and forced them to take off everywhere at the same time as Michelle entered a rehabilitation facility. The state-run facility is a “discount rehab,” the only place they can afford. During their tour, Michelle asked the director and head counselor (Albert Jones) if they actually have a yoga studio. He has to tell her that even though they have a room that used to become a yoga studio, it must be converted to hold a replacement boiler bought with the funds they used to pay their yoga instructor. The brothers toured a superior facility but ditched it after realizing it cost $800 a day. “We absolutely take five percent for families in need of financial assistance,” the director told them.

They can get free treatment for their mother if she can be committed to a psych ward, but must prove that she tried to harm herself. “He’s not crazy,” Ethan told Derek. “He doesn’t try to eat people or throw his own shit. Rehab is the right move.” Then there is a cut to Michelle sitting in the bathroom, listening to her sons talk about her. He has that zoned-out but shy expression people have when they realize they are a burden to others.

The movie seems to be pulling its punches. Addiction and recovery is a painful grind for the addict and everyone in their inner circle, and there’s sure to be a much rawer, more confrontational, less pretty version of the story lurking within it. And the script is sometimes very frank and network TV-like in how its characters talk to each other, like a scene where Ashley cries to Ethan after he finds out he wants to go to school in the Ivy League than one of them. Both have been received (he yells out a laundry list of his displeasure with her; it’s like a “talking to someone” crowd-pleasing scene in a sitcom).

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