5 Best Films Exploring Substance Abuse and Recovery
It’s not often that Hollywood gets much right: ‘true stories’ turn out that to be not so true and drama wins out over reality. There are dozens of examples of films which portray themselves as real accounts of historic events, biographical films, or authentic explorations of certain subcultures- namely, in this case, the world of substance abuse- but end up being more of a fantastical account which neglects facts and paints everything through rose-colored glasses.
Clearly that can be rather frustrating, especially for people looking to find some comfort of understanding in these films; being able to see others in your situation (even if they turn out to be fictional characters) is such a healing, cathartic experience. That’s why they say you can tell a lot about a person based on their favorite films, TV shows, and books.
Luckily, there have been a few movies which have been exceptional in portraying addiction- the highs, the lows, and the recovery process. I’ve compiled a list of the 5 best films exploring substance abuse and recovery (PLEASE BE WARNED THAT THESE FILMS MAY BE TRIGGERING):
Teenagedom is an awkward period of life: most people are tasting their first bits of true freedom, learning about themselves and taking their first shaky steps toward independence. Though we often don’t realize it at the time, we’re all extremely vulnerable and susceptible to suggestions and peer pressures during these formative years.
Dealing with a torrent of adult emotions and topics for the first time and desperation to be popular pushes some to do things they would not do otherwise.
That’s exactly what 2003’s Thirteen explores, with a few troubling consequences. Tracy, our dubious protagonist, is a 13 year old girl striving for popularity while battling depression. She befriends troubled fellow teenager, Evie, who introduces her to a world of sex, drugs, and petty crime. We watch as this promising teenage life spirals out of control, causing strains in her relationship with her mother, who herself is a recovering alcoholic.
Eventually it is revealed that Tracy self-harms and, after multiple attempts to intervene in the toxic friendship, Evie and Tracy are finally separated. The film ends ambiguously, with Tracey seen screaming while riding a merry-go-round.
2.The Wolf of Wall Street
This 2013 hit was beautifully done; filled with comedy to juxtapose moments of absolute insanity and angst, it’s no wonder it was so highly praised. The Wolf of Wall Street was based on the life of Jordan Belfort, who penned a book by the same title recounting his life as a wealthy stockbroker on Wall Street in New York City. It portrays the ambitious, if illegal, rise of Belfort (played, of course, by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his exploits following his rapid climb to the top.
There is an especially telling scene in which Belfort is introduced to the underground griminess of Wall Street by Matthew McConaughey Mark Hanna- including indulgent use of cocaine and alcohol. Just as with Thirteen, Belfort initially finds himself drawn in by the desire to be liked, to succeed, but rapidly falls into the alluring world laid before him.
The trouble quickly catches up to him, landing him in hot water with the FBI and suffering the ill effects of his drug abuse. While this movie is definitely hilarious, we can’t forget that at its heart is a man whose life fell to pieces due to his own self- destructive decision making. That’s what addiction does to you, rather it’s to money, sex, drugs, or the thrill of being on top.
Here we find yet another semi-autobiographical movie, this one is about the man responsible for bringing cocaine into the United States in the 1970s. Released in 2001, Blow opens with a poignant scene in Jung’s early life: his father declared bankruptcy when he was only 10 years old, causing his family to lose everything. Though Jung’s father attempted to teach him that money isn’t everything, this moment in Jung’s life would motivate his actions in his adult life.
Determined to never live in destitution again, Johnny Depp’s portrayal of George Jung’s drive to make his money by any means necessary is captivating. While he begins with marijuana trafficking and is sentenced to jail after being busted, Jung continues to traffic drugs between the US and Mexico, ultimately establishing the first cocaine trade. Jung’s life unravels around him as he continues to delve deep into the trafficking world, despite attempts to leave the drug underworld behind. In real life, Jung spent 20 years in prison, released in June of 2014.
While he definitely isn’t someone to admire, Jung’s story in Blow helps us to understand the motivation behind the drug trafficking industry. When people believe they have no other means of making their living, they turn to desperate measures. We often like to paint drug traffickers and drug dealers as heartless and cold, but really, behind the crime is fear and desperation.
4.Enter the Void
This film is definitely a detour from the typical approach to addiction and substance abuse in Hollywood. In Enter the Void, we begin at the end: our main character is killed in a drug deal gone wrong. However, in the after world, his soul seeks redemption for his actions while he was living in order to be resurrected. His journey is highlighted by hallucinations and psychedelic effects. The majority of this film is shot in first-person while our main character witnesses the consequences of his actions on others.
Much like Blow, through this film we get to witness the effects of substance abuse through the eyes of those whom carry at least some bit of the responsibility. Throughout the movie we witness as our faceless protagonist begins to understand the ever-branching consequences of his actions. In the end, we see what can be interpreted as his successful rebirth.
5.24 Hour Party People
In this 2002 British comedy/drama, we explore the often wild world of the underground music scene of Manchester from 1976 to 1992. 24 Hour Party People specifically, this film follows the founding of Factory Records, which all began when the main character, a news reporter named Tony, sees the Sex Pistols perform live at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall for the first time and decides to do weekly punk rock shows at a club in Manchester. From there he falls in love with the scene and decides to open a record company, despite knowing nothing of the business.
After signing few bands, Tony opens a nightclub to supplement the costs of his record label, which begins to hemorrhage money due to his poorly constructed contracts and lack of follow through when it comes to producing money. Drug use abounds as he attempts first to make his label work, then to sell it to a larger company. That deal falls through when it is revealed none of his contracts are actually binding. In the end, Tony is found sitting atop a roof smoking marijuana and having a conversation with God, in which he is assured he will go down in history.
While the relationship between drugs and the music business is nothing new, this blur between fact and fiction gives you a glimpse into how easy it is to get swept away by substance abuse in much the same way as Wolf of Wall Street. Rather Tony was successful or a failure is up to interpretation.
Stay tuned for part 2 to this list! What other movies can you suggest for our list? Let us know in the comments below!
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About the Author
Alexandrea Holder is a South Florida native working toward double Master’s degrees in Psychology and English. She finds the psychological aspects of addiction and mental illness fascinating, as both are prevalent in her family’s history. When not researching and spreading addiction awareness, Alexandrea enjoys sparring, artistic pursuits, and admiring puppies online.