Stay Awake (2022) Movie Review: Jamie Sisley is perhaps inadvertently a touch too personal in his depiction of an addict and the people responsible for keeping her afloat. Granted, the indie wrapping up the peaks and valleys of the hope that keeps one going even as one battle the all-devouring black hole that is this debilitating disease is admittedly Sisley’s way of coming to terms with his own experiences.
But when you shoulder the responsibility of reintroducing a motif that has been talked about time and again, the affixed chore of bringing absolute sincerity to it automatically falls on you. That is a test that Stay Awake scores straight A-s in when it comes to the acutely compassionate look it takes at Ethan and Derek; two brothers with an imperative burden of parenting an addict mother as time and life close in on them.
While staying true to the ludicrous sacrifices a carer has no choice but to make, Stay Awake hardly musters up the veracity that Michelle, the struggling mother with an addiction to prescription drugs, was owed.
Ticking things off a boilerplate list that holds the unofficial rules that an indie movie about addiction can choose to follow turns out to be a boon for Sisley’s directorial debut when Ethan and Derek are on screen. And lucky for us, the chiaroscuro of the suffocating frames aptly preserves the plight of the two young brothers.
Wyatt Oleff exudes pain through his most endearing smiles that cut through his grim realities as a brainy high school senior with a nerve-wracking life. Ethan is the more detached of the two brothers, both of whom have been caught up in a deleterious web of picking up after Michelle. Fin Argus’ Derek is a triggering sentinel of all of those thoroughly sentimental carers who are willing to give and give until there’s nothing left of them.
Every time their small frames are set against the behemoth structures they are shown to pass by, you can’t help but helplessly let your eyes follow the two lost boys facing the threat of time’s ticking bomb. A delicately dropped irony of their pragmatic self-sacrifice is hard to miss when they’re willing to get lost trying to locate their missing mother. Had Stay Awake been true to itself; had it not been coy in its approach to the story, which had no business being stealthy in the first place, Sisley’s movie might have had a fighting chance at clinching the applause as one of the most unfeigned inquiries into a carer’s guilt.
After all, the sadness looms the heaviest when the narrative lingers on the conflict between the bare minimum allotted for self and going the extra mile for an afflicted loved one. It’s a conflict that shreds Ethan’s nerves as he quietly stifles how noisy it’s getting in his mind. The choice between a full ride to an Ivy League school and shouldering his nearly unconscious mother through the hospital lobby is not quite an easy one.
Especially when Ethan can’t possibly consider leaving Derek behind to kill his dreams and save Michelle from herself, but it’s a job that Derek has been accustomed to from a young age. He is selling himself short with goofy commercials because his dream lives beyond the distance he allows himself to go.
There’s no father in the picture. So who will haul Michelle to the hospital and in and out of rehabs if Derek isn’t around? There’s no rising to the occasion for the two brothers, who haven’t had a shut eye ever since their mom’s started drugging herself to oblivion.
What fails unjustifiably is the film’s formulaic predestination. And the irony of this disappointing outcome is rooted in the universal logic that one is supposed to mete out a reasonable amount of prudence between all the elements of significance. What could’ve flourished into a rare and insightful understanding of the inner workings of a loving mother who just can’t stop herself from hurting the two people she loves more than anything is morosely lost in the little road Michelle’s character is allowed to walk.
A shockingly melodramatic laceration made by Ethan on his sedated mother’s arm just to get her into a psych ward is a rather vivid manifestation of the unimaginable measures a person in his position is forced to take. But no one held a microphone to Michelle. She was owed a louder voice.