Tag Archives: addictions

Don’t Worry. He Won’t Get Far On Foot

John Callahan was a dedicated alcoholic when he had a life-changing accident that left him paralyzed.

Post-accident, the path to sobriety isn’t exactly direct. Between the struggle to accept his new limitations, learning to live in a chair, caring for his broken body, and searching for the mother who gave him up at birth, there are a lot of reasons to drink. Of course, there’s always a reason to drink. Only when he truly embraces the value of AA, with the help of group leader Donny (Jonah Hill), does he start to imagine a future for himself. And he finds a healthy way to channel his anger and his energy and his wonderment: cartoons.

MV5BMjMyMTY2MzYxN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTEwNDgyNDM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_Callahan is injured enough that he cannot grasp a pen but he manages somehow to manipulate a felt-tip pen between two mangled hands and he finds inspiration in his life to create funny, and often controversial cartoons. His student paper sees fit to publish him and from there he develops a national following.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is a line ripped from one of his own cartoons; the movie is adapted from Callaghan’s memoir. Director Gus Van Sant wants to say something about the healing power of art but the movie itself reads more like a tribute to support systems and the importance of forgiveness without dipping into the considerable well of inspirational cliches.

It’s a dark comedy, as you can imagine, but between Jack Black, Jonah Hill, and an orange-haired Joaquin Phoenix wielding his wheel chair like a bat on wheels, there’s some appreciated levity to all the drama. It’s an off-beat comedy about an off-beat guy. Phoenix is irrepressible.

Sean didn’t care for the movie – he felt not much had happened. I liked it well enough – I liked the unexpected performances from the likes of Beth Ditto, Carrie Brownstein, and Kim Gordon. I liked that Callaghan’s dark vein of humour is kept in tact throughout transformation, that he doesn’t become some sort of saint, merely the same caustic guy with a new lease on life. I liked that his past is never treated like an excuse – not that I’m not sympathetic to his victimhood but I like that he finds his salvation elsewhere, that he’s allowed to not solve the puzzle of his childhood before finding peace in his present. The 12 steps are not equally cinematic, but I felt Phoenix’s charismatic performance carried us through. Obviously Sean disagreed, so I guess I’d call this a mixed-bag review. It’s not for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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TIFF18: Ben Is Back

Ben is back. Believe the title. It’s Christmas Eve and Holly (Julia Roberts) has been out and about with her kids, running last-minute holiday preparations. But when she pulls in to her driveway, her eyes light up. Her Christmas wish has come true: eldest son Ben (Lucas Hedges) is back. He’s been away at rehab, and so has a piece of her heart. What a wonderful thing to have him back, to have her precious family all together for the holiday. But her happiness is tempered. It’s obvious without her saying so that she doesn’t quite trust him, that he’s given her lots of reasons not to.

MV5BMTgxMTk0MDgyMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTI1MzkxNjM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_Her teenage daughter is skeptical, but her husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) is downright wary. Not only has he also put up with Ben’s ups and downs, he’s been the one putting his family back together afterward. But with Ben’s sponsor’s blessing, they come up with some boundaries and agree that Ben can stay for 24 hours of holiday magic and memories.

Well, there will be memories. Just not the cozy ones Holly was hoping for. This is what addictions are really about. About how they make a whole family sick. About the lies and the broken promises. But it’s also about a mother and her boundless love. About how she is afraid to enable him and afraid not to. Afraid of the danger and the toll and the consequences, but mostly afraid to lose him – lose him to drugs, lose him by pushing him away. So she jumps off the cliff alongside him. So now, instead of a sweet Christmas reunion, we’ve got a sketchy, seedy, underground drug movie. Holly’s concerned family at home remind us what the consequences are.

There were lots of movies about addiction at TIFF this year. Beautiful Boy was similar in theme – it too is told more from the parent’s perspective but its content is totally different. Steve Carell stays at home and frets for his son’s safety – the horror is in not knowing whether he’s alive or dead, in anticipating that phone call. For Julia Roberts, the horror is watching it all happen, finally understanding the extent of her son’s problems but still feeling just as helpless. Roberts is fucking fantastic in the role. Ben Is Back is heart breaking and intense. It is further proof that we still don’t know the best way to help an addict, and lord have mercy on any parent who has to learn that first hand.

TIFF18: The Land of Steady Habits

Anders is mid-life-crisis-ing, hard. He left his wife, quit his job, sleeps with strangers he meets in Bed, Bath & Beyond while shopping for knick-knacks to fill his empty shelves. BUT HE’S STILL NOT HAPPY! Can you believe that abandoning everything you spent your lifetime building is not the path to true happiness? Can you imagine that the real problem was him all along?

I mean, those thoughts haven’t occurred to Anders (Ben Mendelsohn) yet. He’s a man. He’s not that quick. In fact, he’s slow and dumb enough to get high with someone else’s son. Charlie (Charlie Tehan) barely survives an overdose but shows up at Anders’ new bachelor pad looking for…friendship? Anders should know better; his own son PrestonMV5BMWZlMjZiMGItMjBhZS00YTlhLTlkMDgtNDc3Y2NkOTc2OGViXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODI4MjAzNjU@._V1_ (Thomas Mann) has been to rehab and apparently still has a problem that isn’t quite addressed. But if his own son isn’t really his problem, why should someone else’s be?

So that doesn’t go well. Nothing does. The Land of Steady Habits is drenched in suburban angst, dripping with the failure of men, both young and old. Director Nicole Holofcener has a knack for eliciting career-best performances from her actors, and Ben Mendelsohn is no exception. His little idiosyncrasies, that devilish grin, they keep the character just shy of being unforgivable. Still, Anders is not meant to be liked. He gambled on the grass being greener and it isn’t. His discontent seems to poison those around him. Ah, the listlessness of the wealthy. It makes it so easy to sit back and judge, guilt-free.

Holofcener makes some interesting choices – notably, that Anders has already shed his previous life when we meet him. And he’s already finding the new one to be hollow. And we experience his search for meaning to be quite petty and superficial. Mendelsohn subverts his usual simmering anger to suggest an inner tension as he navigates relations with his son, ex-wife (Edie Falco), and new love (Connie Britton), with bitter, sometimes humourous results.

The Land of Steady Habits is a good character study that’s a bit uneven as a dramedy. Holofcener tends to be restrained. Sometimes that’s wonderful, and sometimes it’s a little frustrating. This movie seethes with ennui, shame, and regret, and nobody gets a free pass.

TIFF18: A Million Little Pieces

A Million Little Pieces is a technically competent (and occasionally impressive) film that lacks perspective and personality. In life generally and this festival particularly, we have been inundated with films about addictions and recovery. If you’re going to pile on, I expect you have a hot take, a fresh point of view. It’s not unreasonable to expect that A Million Little Pieces might have had one; several years ago (2003, in fact), James Frey released his memoir (of the same name) and it was a monster best-seller. But when questions of authenticity surfaced, Frey’s shooting star burned out quickly, thanks in large part to Oprah’s dragon-fire condemnation.

The film was relegated to back burner, then cold storage, then deep freeze as the controversy was allowed to cool. But now that people have all but forgotten his name, Sam Taylor-Johnson brings his story to the big screen but curiously leaves the scandal unthawed, with only a Mark Twain quote to excuse away his dishonesty.

AMillionLittlePieces_0HEROWhat’s left is a story without a single breath of uniqueness. Drugs are bad, behaviour off the rails, shipped to rehab against his will, detox makes you sick, “I don’t need to be here,” resistance, rule-breaking, temptation, uncovering trauma, cautious optimism. Insert new names and this could literally describe at least a dozen movies about addictions, and those are just the ones I can name and I can’t name shit. Although Sam Taylor-Johnson makes things pretty (save her own husband, with cracked teeth and a broken nose), this feels like a very familiar, very formulaic iteration.

Taylor-Johnson’s husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, co-writes the script with her (which seems not to be a strength) and stars as Frey. She has enormous faith in his abilities as an actor, and directs him well. He’s committed and intense, and would have been great in a great role, except they failed to write one, and this “Frey” character is bland and superficial. We hardly get to know him, and the few flashbacks are not informative or expository, they’re hardly more than images. That said, his costars, including Billy Bob Thornton, Giovanni Ribisi, Juliette Lewis, Charlie Hunnam, and Odessa Young, get even shorter shrift. Back stories? Ha. These people barely get front stories. They fill the obligatory sharing-circle chairs and that’s about it.

I think there might have been a little life to this story had they not shied away from the truth of it. But as is, it’s a million little pieces of ordinary that add up to 113 minutes of boring, minus the 40 seconds or so when Aaron rocks out with his cock out. With so many options at the cinema, this just doesn’t cut it. An easy miss.

TIFF18: Beautiful Boy

Wow, fucking Steve Carell, eh? What are we doing to deserve him?

Some say burying a child is the hardest thing a parent can do, but Beautiful Boy proves there are much, much worse things: watching your child suffer; watching him kill himself, slowly; having him cry for help and refusing; waiting for That Call; mourning him while he’s still alive. For years Steve Carell was America’s favourite clown, but his movie career has proven him equally capable in both the comedy and dramatic worlds.

Beautiful Boy is a memoir of sorts, written by a father in crisis. David (Carell) has always been close to his son, until suddenly he’s not. In just a matter of weeks he’s felt him slip away, and now he’s questioning whether he ever knew him at all.

Nic (Timothee Chalamet)was not an abused kid, was well cared-for during childhood. But he chases the high, craves it, needs it. And crystal meth is the absolute worst drug of choice, its use destroying nerve endings, requiring the user to need more each time just to feel the same high. Those escalating quantities worsen the addiction, making his body MV5BNTRmNjFlYzEtMzVhZi00NmEwLTgxYTktYTQ1OTgwNDc2ZDZkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODE1MjMyNzI@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_crave it even more: a vicious cycle. It doesn’t always happen like this, but sometimes it’s a normal, happy, middle-class kid from a good and loving family who falls prey. Nic feels he’s disappointing his family. His parents feel they’ve somehow failed him. But now what? Do you support/enable him indefinitely, do you watch his teeth rot and his flesh waste and the life behind his eyes disappear? Do you allow his behaviour to tear your whole family apart, exposing younger siblings to it? Or do you cut him loose, not knowing where he is or if he’s safe, hoping every day that his rock bottom isn’t 6 feet deep?

I am astonished by the mastery of Steve Carell as he shows the impact of these decisions with his drawn, haggard face. He isn’t an overly emotive man, nor does he need to be to convey his agony. But the movie itself never quite comes together as successfully as the performances. I did appreciate the structure and how it mimics the highs and lows and false promises of recovery and relapse, but audiences may find it frustrating.

Beautiful Boy was never going to be a beautiful movie, but it works better as a portrait of a family in crisis than it does as a treatise on addiction. This story belongs more to the father, safe if worried in his warm, comfortable home. His son, who disappears for large chunks, is not shown in the direst of conditions in which he must live. If anything, the film nearly glamourizes drug use without being honest about the consequences for balance, which feels a little irresponsible.

This movie will be remembered for its performances, Carell’s especially, but not its content.

Recovery Boys

So in my other life, I’m a crisis counselor. Which is different from the type of therapist you see once a week. I come in when someone is thinking urgent thoughts of or is planning or attempting suicide. Sometimes I only talk to clients once, on the worst day of their lives, in order to make sure it’s not their last. Other times they might become a regular, someone I’m in contact with very often, sometimes every day, because every day is a struggle. As you can imagine, I’ve heard and seen everything. EVERYTHING. But that doesn’t mean shit doesn’t get to me. I’ve been the recipient of every graphic disclosure you can think of about 70 billion you can’t even imagine, but something rather innocuous struck me last week: a client told me he’d recently met someone who claimed to have never had an addiction problem in their life. And my client couldn’t believe it. Had never encountered such a person before. Declared he must either be a liar or a rarity. Imagine not knowing a single sober MV5BMTk1NDY0OTE0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjg0MjI0NTM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1498,1000_AL_person. In my life, and probably in yours, addictions are the exception and not the rule. But for people who are in different circumstances, life is hard as fuck, and living sober can feel impossible. And that’s not even factoring in genetics. I felt so sad for this client of mine who has never known anything else.

So this is my mindset, I’m either in the best place to watch this documentary, or the worst. It’s about a group of men in a farming-based residential rehab facility.

Jeff is the rehab’s first ever client, and arrives straight from jail. He’s very young but he’s got two kids in foster care, awaiting either him or their mother to get straight and reclaim them. They’re at the forefront of his mind, and visitation makes it clear that he is a loving and doting father. So the fact that he keeps fucking up proves how deeply the addiction monster’s got his claws in him.

Adam receives a loving letter from his grandmother and it unravels him because he can’t reconcile her affection with his behaviour. She works at a goodwill to stave off homelessness because of all he’s stolen from her, but still she loves him. He knows he would never be so forgiving. He’s undone.

As a staff member of the rehab facility points out, these men are facing a “menu of shitty options.” I know that addictions are a disease, one that gets almost zero sympathy, but it’s not unlike heart disease. Sure there’s a lifestyle component, but there’s also genes and compulsion. But no matter how many hamburgers you continue to eat after your first and second heart attacks, society will continue to weep for you around your hospital bed. Not so with drug relapses. Those people we revile for their “weakness” and “bad choices.” If only it were so easy.

This is not an episode of Intervention. No one’s trying to dramatize or glamourize anything, and it doesn’t get wrapped up neatly in the end. It’s clear that director Elaine McMillion Sheldon knows something about addictions, understands that your first trip to rehab is rarely your last. We don’t learn anything about addictions in this film. Instead, we live briefly in their shoes. We see the struggle. We know there is no cure, that recovery is an every day commitment, and we should be really honest with ourselves about how hard that would be for any single one of us. But some of us win the genetic lottery and some of us lose. The least we can do is show a little compassion, which this documentary engenders rather well.

Columbus

Jin is summoned from Korea to Columbus, Ohio by Eleanor when his estranged father collapses. Jin impatiently waits out his father’s coma, and seems to prefer death over recovery, for selfish reasons. He can’t bear to to sit by his father’s hospital bed, and he’s not going to speak to him now since the two haven’t spoken in a year. So he wanders about, trying to appreciate what his father loved about Columbus’s unique architecture.

This is how Jin (John Cho) meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman stayed in Columbus to take care of her addict mother rather than pursuing her own dreams in college and beyond.

The cool thing about Columbus is its cinematography, which is surprisingly beautiful in such a small, independent film. It frames the architecture well – except scratch that, I’m embarrassed by this underwhelming sentiment. Because the truth is, the way the buildings are framed and posed and shown and hidden – it made me feel MV5BZjNjY2Q2NjAtOWI0My00ZDg3LTljNzEtNzhiYzkzNzUwMTI0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzI3NjY2ODc@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_things about architecture. The photography is just as kind to its human characters, but the way it treats the artistry of the buildings turns them into characters as well, characters that reflect and mirror or juxtapose and contrast. It’s clear that writer-director Kogonada has put a lot of thought and time and research into his baby.

Columbus isn’t an ambition story, it’s just two people, fairly dissimilar, who cross paths as they kill time in different ways. They’re both waiting on parents, and probably shouldn’t be. They’re both learning what that means and who it makes them as people and what effect they’ll allow the past to have on their futures. It’s mostly quiet and introspective, but the composition and structure and the precision of the visuals come together – not to overcome the silence, but to act in synchronicity. Kogonada finds serenity in stasis but that doesn’t mean his film doesn’t pack an emotional punch. It’s just a minimalist canvas upon which you can project a lot of your own feelings, and come away feeling just a bit refreshed, and just a tiny bit hopeful.