The brooding protagonist, alone at the bar. There are few better ways to show a character’s inner torment than to have them drowning in a bottle. To drink or drug your way out of misery (ironically worsening it) is as natural to our anti-heroes as breathing air. Unfortunately, it’s something many people face in real life, too. With levels of drug use on the rise in America, and binge drinking an integral part of British culture, addiction has become a huge topic of exploration in cinema.
Some inspirational, others tragic, many of these films are based on true stories. In this article, we’re going to look at fifteen great films that cover themes of addiction and alcoholism. It’s dark, it’s heavy, and it’s a great catalyst for drama. Prepare to shed a little tear watching these movies, but also take away some life-changing lessons.
Please note that we at High On Films stand against substance abuse. This list is not intended to endorse or encourage the use (or misuse) of illegal drugs and/or alcohol. If you think you may be struggling with addiction or find this article triggering, please seek help. You can find a list of helpful organisations here.
15. Cherry (2021)
Cherry (Tom Holland) doesn’t choose the healthiest coping mechanisms when returning from Iraq with PTSD: drugs and robberies. In order to fund his growing opioid addiction, young Cherry resorts to looting a string of banks. Eventually, the only way Cherry is able to get clean is in prison. But what triggered all this? A break-up. One simple, teenage heartbreak that set off a chain of events for real-life Nico Walker, who wrote the semi-biographical novel Cherry in 2018. When his girlfriend Emily (Ciara Bravo) tells Cherry she is leaving for college, he signs up to the army to cope with her absence. Though he comes back to her in the end, nothing is ever the same.
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Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have a certain way of navigating time, compartmentalizing Cherry’s nightmarish journey into distinct chapters. The film works together as a whole, but with each individual cog visible to the audience, documenting Cherry’s journey from down, to up, to the pits of hell. Holland’s performance is nothing less than admirable, perfectly capturing the distress, pain and euphoric oblivion of drug abuse. Cherry also works to expose the neglect many veterans face from the government, carelessly prescribed OxyContin to treat his severe panic attacks (which later amplifies into heroin).
Watch Cherry (2021) on Apple iTunes
14. Ben is Back (2018)
One of the biggest detriments that addiction has is its effect on the rest of the family—specifically parents. Addicts are self-destructive by nature, and despite knowing this, continue on their path of pain and selfishness out of impulse. For a loving parent, this is the worst thing that can happen to your child—and by extension, you. We see this tragic affliction between parent and child frequently throughout this list, and none more prevalent than in Peter Hedges drama Ben is Back.
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Julia Roberts stars as the torn-up mother Holly Burns. Her son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), comes home for Christmas as a surprise—but not exactly the good kind. As overjoyed as Holly is to be reunited with her son, she is understandably suspicious given his history of drug abuse. In fact, if it wasn’t for Holly, Ben would have died of an overdose long ago. The ropes Ben got himself tangled in years ago come back to haunt him, and his mother is left to unravel them over the holiday season. It might not be a festive family favourite, but Ben is Back is aches with emotion; an intimate portrait of the anguish that comes with loving an addict.
13. Castle in the Ground (2019)
The U.S. opioid epidemic began in the late 1990s, where pharmaceutical companies implored that their medications were not addictive. This false promise became the destroyer of worlds; the tragic turning point for many innocent lives in America. It’s a problem still going on today, which Canadian actor and director Joey Klein attempts to tackle on the big screen. As Klein’s second directorial debut, Castle in the Ground follows a grieving teenage boy who accidently becomes hooked on prescription drugs. But of course, prescriptions don’t last forever, so he must find other means.
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Henry (Alex Wolff) and his neighbour Ana (Imogen Poots) dive head-first to the rock-bottom of life. Castle in the Ground is a painful tale of mourning, depression and a life trapped in the dark rooms of opioid addiction. After his mother passes away, Henry has nothing left to do but score his next high, and face the dangers that come with such a task. Klein refuses to sugar-coat any part of this ongoing issue—and quite rightly—so prepare yourself for a sombre ride into unrelenting melancholy. Although Castle in the Ground didn’t receive a red-carpet premier and stunning reviews, we think it’s place on this list is well deserved.
12. The Panic in Needle Park (1971)
Jerry Schatzberg’s gruelling drama takes a journey through the seedy underbelly of New York. “Needle Park”, located in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is a sleazy hang out spot for junkies. One of these junkies is Bobby, spectacularly performed by the great Al Pacino. He lives in a shabby apartment with his girlfriend Helen (Kitty Winn), who gradually succumbs to Bobby’s heroin addiction. Their bleak love story is one of desperation, migrating between jail cells, sex work and Needle Park. It’s more of a character study than a story—a study of two people whose youth is lost to the sickness of addiction.
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The American Dream is abandoned on these New York City streets, which Schatzberg directs us through with humility. It’s a hard watch, but a necessary one, exposing the harsh reality of America’s drug culture. The Panic in Needle Park grabs your attention, and holds it firmly it its hands, demanding that we pay attention to the growing despondence of city life on the poverty line. The film is based on James Mills 1966 novel, and takes us effortlessly into Bobby and Helen’s desolate world—one where nothing exists except finding that next hit.
11. Filth (2013)
Viewers are used to seeing James McAvoy as the sweet-natured hero with a troubled mind and a good heart. In 2013, we saw a very different side to him. Bruce Robertson is a corrupt, foul-mouthed cop with an appetite for all things self-destructive. A permanently hungover misanthrope (yes, McAvoy really did drink whiskey every night of filming to achieve that authentic hungover look), Bruce terrorizes his colleagues in an attempt to win a promotion. But no matter how hard he tries, Bruce can’t stop his inner demons from creeping to the surface.
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Filth is a daring black-comedy that’s pumped full of energy, directed by Jon S. Baird. It’s distressing at times, as Bruce becomes more and more enveloped by drunken outbursts and scary hallucinations, but also darkly funny. Despite being an anti-hero with more bad traits than good, we can’t help but feel sorry for Bruce. We come to learn the awful motives behind his substance abuse, and catch glimpses of his better self in brief, sobering moments. McAvoy’s performance is perfectly—frantically—executed. Filth is essentially the character study of one truly broken and hopeless man— one who puts on a hard, crude exterior to keep out the world he so fiercely blames.
10. A Star is Born (2018)
A Star is Born has been remade three times since Judy Garland first starred in the 1950s original, effectively documenting the evolution of cinema. Starting from the Golden Age of Hollywood (1954), through third-wave feminism (1976) and into the modern-day climate of pop celebrity culture, the context of A Star is Born is just as important as the film itself. All three movies follow an alcoholic rock star who falls for a wannabe singer and brings her into the spotlight. But contextually, each film shows how attitudes towards women, relationships and fame has changed over time.
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At the core of each version (and for this list we’re focusing on the 2018 one) is an agonized musician (this time played by Bradley Cooper, who also directs). Jack’s abuse and reliance on alcohol not only threatens his relationship with Ally (Lady Gaga), but also her career. Although Jack is responsible for Ally’s claim to fame, her reputation hangs on the same thread that Jack’s does so long as they are together. A Star is Born is simultaneously elegant and raw; the glitz, glamour and romance of their celebrity lives are contrasted by Jack’s depression, trauma and the depravity of his addiction. Jack publicly humiliates himself numerous times, and eventually gives in to his inner turmoil, leaving Ally to chase her dreams without his burden.
Read the complete review of A Star is Born Here
9. Walk the Line (2006)
Celebrities and drug culture go hand-in-hand. Having access to so much money, coupled with the party lifestyle and pressures of performing, celebrities saturate the news headlines with overdoes stories. Big names like Elvis, Elton John and Amy Winehouse have each had their experiences with addiction splattered all over the media—and Johnny Cash was one such name. Brilliantly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix (who has publicly admitted his own stint in rehab), Walk the Line begins at the trigger point of Cash’s downfall, way back in his childhood. After his brother is traumatically killed in a sawmill accident, Cash’s father claims death “took the wrong son.”
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Cash’s troubled upbringing continues to affect the country-rock singer as he rises to fame and falls for bubbly personality June Carter (Reece Witherspoon). Cash didn’t just sing the blues, he felt it. Unfortunately, his depression needed a stronger outlet than just song-writing. Cash fell into a dark pit of booze and pills—specifically amphetamines. He becomes erratic, angry and quickly finds himself in handcuffs when travelling to Mexico for drugs. James Mangold’s biopic is bittersweet, simultaneously celebrating Cash’s huge musical influence while exposing the struggle behind it.
8. Flight (2012)
Robert Zemeckis treads the line between action-packed cinema and poignant character study in his 2012 drama Flight. Denzel Washington grounds the film with his touching performance, starring as an alcoholic airplane pilot Captain Whip Whitaker. During some severe turbulence, Whitaker manages to control a crash landing and save numerous lives in spite of his alcohol levels. Unluckily for him, the hospital takes a blood sample while he’s unconscious and find his veins swimming in vodka and cocaine. A crash investigation takes place, and his secrets are brought to light in the courtroom.
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Zemeckis welcomes us with the thrills of a high-alarm action sequence, and leaves us on the sour note of guilt and shame. Flight narrowly avoids romanticism, praised instead for its strong emotive force and Washington’s impeccable acting skills. You may have seen Whip’s public confession scene in various acting complications, even if you haven’t seen the film itself. Flight takes viewers into the nitty-gritty of alcoholism, which can affect anyone—even wealthy, successful professionals. Not every addict’s story takes place in graffitied crack-dens and abandoned buildings; some are hidden in plain sight. Addiction has no prejudices.
7. Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Drugs sure do drain the old bank account, which is why so many junkies resort to petty crime and theft. Drugstore Cowboy depicts the life of a dysfunctional “family” who rob—you guessed it—drugstores to get high. Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) is the leader of this gang, but suddenly decides to get clean after witnessing a fatal overdose. His 21-day methadone treatment program is far from easy, but Bob is determined to fight against the “hex” cast upon him. Kelly Lynch, Heather Graham and William S. Burroughs also star.
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Drugstore Cowboy is one of the few films with a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, exemplifying just how well director Gus Van Sant executed the American crime-drama. Van Sant went on to direct a myriad of critically-acclaimed films following Drugstore Cowboy, including My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Good Will Hunting (1997). Drugstore Cowboy is a steady and polished piece of cinema, imbuing the drama with bouts of black-comedy. For a low-budget indie film, Drugstore Cowboy really manages to captivate the tragedy of drug culture in a lyrical and timely manner. Bob’s insightful narration takes us on a journey across the open roads, shrouded by the misery of death and superstition.
6. Beautiful Boy (2018)
Not every addict is born from a childhood of abuse and trauma. A stable upbringing, supportive parents and nicely furnished house doesn’t bar you from mental illness or the lure of euphoria. Felix van Groeningen shows us this in his heart-wrenching biopic Beautiful Boy, based on the life of Nic Sheff. The film is pieced together from the memoirs of Nic and his father David in Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction (2008) and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines (2008). David was a writer for the New York Times, and wrote about his son’s addiction as a coping mechanism. Played by the fantastic Steve Carrell in one of his more serious roles, David does all he can to help Nic, who constantly goes missing and steals to fund his habit.
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Nic (Timothée Chalamet) had a sparkling future ahead of him—good grades, college, and unbound creativity. However, after trying numerous drugs, he finds himself hooked on meth. He swings back and forth between rehabs, 12-step programmes and relapses, drowning in the shame and desperation of his addiction. Chalamet’s performance in particular stands out, juggling the guilt of letting his father down and need to run away. It’s a remorseless, intense piece of cinema, punctuated by tender moments of beauty, innocence and hope.
5. Trainspotting (1996)
Danny Boyle probably didn’t expect this Channel 4 indie flick to make such a cultural impact, effectively putting the auteur director on the map. Set in Scotland, Trainspotting not only depicts the bizarre, twisted world of drug abuse, but acts as a social commentary on urban poverty in modern day Edinburgh. Based on the 1993 novel by Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting isn’t so much a critique on drug culture so much as the dire conditions that working-class people face, forcing them into a world of degradation and death. It has since been hailed by the BFI as one of the best British films of the 20th century, spawning the 2017 sequel T2 Trainspotting.
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Heavy as it sounds, Trainspotting is actually surprisingly funny. Ewan McGregor stars as a cynical heroin addict who despises the materialism of his (and our) Capitalist society. In his eyes, the bliss of getting high beats “sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows.” He and his addict friends live in derelict homes, dwindling the days away to hallucinations, night clubs and the occasional cold-turkey torture. Boyle stylizes the film as if it were on drugs itself—trippy dream sequences, choppy editing and nightmarish psychedelia make it a wild ride from start to finish.
4. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
If you’ve seen this film, you’ll probably be shocked to learn it’s based on real life. Loosely, that is. Hunter S. Thompson wrote the original roman à clef in 1971, and aptly named it Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Terry Gilliam then adapted Thompson’s story into an utterly unique, wildly chaotic film starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro. And there was no other way to present this novel than through the wildly chaotic, documenting Raoul Duke (Thompson, played by Depp) and Dr. Gonzo’s “savage journey” to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race.
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Pretty much every complicated-sounding drug makes an appearance in the movie—mescaline, LSD, diethyl ether, adrenochrome, cannabis and, of course, booze. It’s a wonder the two came out alive enough to write about it. What’s most striking about Gilliam’s cult black-comedy is its surreal style of filmmaking. Trippy lighting and tilted camera angles offer viewers a first-hand experience of psychedelics, where the duo hallucinate giant lizards and eel-people. The dialogue is strange and frantically fast paced; the editing is fast and fragmented. To call the film a roller-coaster ride would be an understatement—it’s more of a torpedo launching and then exploding into a thousand little pieces. By the end of the road trip, Raoul and Gonzo are an incoherent mess, reduced to an almost feral state of psychosis.
3. Another Round (2020)
Winning the Oscar for Best International Picture in 2021, Another Round is an independent Danish film that surprisingly swept up mainstream audiences. So much so that an English-speaking remake is already in the works, with Leonardo DiCaprio set to headline. Let’s hope Hollywood doesn’t lose sight of the charm and fun that makes Another Round so enjoyable, replacing it with an overload of melodrama. Thomas Vinterberg’s dark-comedy simmers with personality, starring Mads Mikkelsen in one of his best performances. When four high-school teachers decide to experiment with the daily consummation of (a little) alcohol, things turn from amusing, to questionable, to outright disastrous.
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Vinterberg employs a sort of poetic realism in Another Round. The euphoric, elevated state of intoxication is portrayed in dreamy ways, proposing that drinking culture need not be such a heavy subject. Though, of course, you can’t drink every day and expect to not become an alcoholic. Vinterberg strikes a keen balance between the absurdly happy and the tragic. Just as the characters push the boundaries of what one can achieve in a constant state of tipsiness, Vinterberg pushes the boundaries of what traditional film-making can do. Binge drinking never looked so fun (or dangerous), especially in that knock-out finale. DiCaprio’s good, but will anyone dance as good as Mikkelsen in that ending scene?
Read the complete review of Another Round (2020) Here
Watch Another Round (2020) on Hulu
2. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Requiem for a Dream deals with a multitude of dark themes akin to the human psyche. Our desperate need for love, acceptance and joy is contorted into a feverish longing that only drugs can cure. Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller is based on the 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr., and has gained quite a cult following since its release. Requiem for a Dream traces different characters in parallel storylines—predominantly a self-medicating widow and her heroin-addicted son.
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Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) attempts to crash-diet her way into regaining her youth, eventually becoming hooked on prescribed amphetamines that support her developing eating disorder. On the flip side, her son Harry (Jared Leto) gets involved in gang warfare to fund his drug habit, which eventually leaves him with a gangrenous arm. Aronofksy fuels the movie with a strong sense of urgency; the loneliness of these characters is palpable. The raw, unflinching style of Requiem for a Dream deem it not for the faint-hearted, but certainly a powerful watch.
1. The Basketball Diaries (1995)
Leonardo DiCaprio has been wowing critics from a very young age—most notably for his performance as the disabled boy Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (dir. Lasse Hallström, 1993). Just two-years later, DiCaprio was flexing his acting skills once again, this time as the real-life heroin addict Jim Carroll. Based on Carroll’s incredible true story, The Basketball Diaries recounts his life from a promising young writer and keen basketball player to homeless addict. Scott Kalvert directs this heart-wrenching biopic, devoid of the glamorous frills Hollywood often tie onto drug culture.
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Perhaps the saddest scene of The Basketball Diaries is Carroll begging his mother—who he hasn’t seen for months—for money outside her door. Flooded with tears, she has no choice but to report her son to the police for his own good. Before this, DiCaprio was astounding us with his gritty depiction of life on the streets, alongside co-star Mark Wahlberg. Carroll narrates snatches of his poetry to us, almost like an ode to what is slowly slipping away at the hands of his addiction. “I love this mansion, though it is too many windows…to open halfway each morning…to close halfway each night.”