Jamie Sisley’s directorial debut, Stay Awake, is an addiction story that situates its two primary characters outside the epicenter of the addiction — in its wake and at the periphery. Tremors of turmoil sweep through the family of three: a single mother and her two coming-of-age sons, the youngest, Ethan (Wyatt Oleff), and older brother, Derek (Steffan Fin Argus). Together, they wait for a lasting respite from their trauma — whether by slow decline or something more disruptive — a tension that fuels the film’s emotional conflict. Ethan has depressive tendencies, and he’s been accepted on full scholarship to Brown, far away from his family’s rural Virginia town. Derek, meanwhile, determinedly (toxically?) positive, has put his acting ambitions on hold to be there for their mother, Michelle (Chrissy Metz), as she fractures their futures in a spiral of prescription pill blackouts — being found, brought to the hospital, and discharged the next day, only to act as if nothing happened at all.
Michelle rarely apologizes to the boys for their labor the morning after a hospital stay. We see in her the same tendency that Derek has adopted: the use of denial for survival. Ethan, on the other hand, is repelled by the passivity he sees in his mother and brother; he repeatedly bleats blame on their mother for her condition, and presses Derek to acknowledge the reality of their situation so that he doesn’t continue trending down his path of becoming “a pathetic person, a loser.” These emotional beats reverberate throughout the film — this now, then that again — in concentric cycles that are subtly developed enough and display sufficient insight to be in favor of its existence, though it must be noted that its visual style and rhythm offer little to complement its structure with its form.
Sisley sporadically shifts between the independent lives of Michelle, Derek, and Ethan in the spaces at the edge of their family life, which is invariably brought to the brink of calamity every time the boys have to bring their mom to the hospital. The ambition of this structure is admirable in creating nuanced characters complex enough to differentiate this film’s various narrative threads, which bears many similarities to addiction films like Beautiful Boy, but unlike, say, Short Cuts or any number of Robert Altman films, Sisley fails to leverage rhythm to imbue these character digressions into a coherent emotional logic that might lend more depth.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t an attempt. Intermittently, we learn many details of the family and their lives: Ethan has a crush on a male classmate who has pursued his ex-girlfriend after their breakup; Derek is stuck in place at a bowling alley, dating high school seniors and yearning to return to acting, if not in films, then to the same success he enjoyed as a regional commercial actor; Michelle continues to seek closure after being left by her husband and the father of the boys, and to become the mother she has failed to be time and again. But while it’s easy to recognize how all of these character details could be used to shade complexity into the film, the effect instead feels like a family portrait drawn in highlighter yellows, pinks, and oranges, pushing the viewer, mechanistically, toward feeling. The irony of Derek’s ambition to act in commercials is that it feels almost as if Argus is playing a character in a commercial for life insurance, with lingering shots seeming to shout, “Look! He’s crying.” The film’s pieces are carefully measured and laid out, but the forcefulness with which they are employed makes it difficult for the viewer to reconcile the onslaught of emotion.
Sisley is more successful elsewhere. Stay Awake boasts a number of beautiful images, including a striking one of the two boys standing in front of what appears to be a massive salt dome. And the film is at its most affecting in moments of painful honesty, where the viewer is made privy to the promise of what could have been: some of the film’s most poignant moments take the form of match cuts of the boys waiting for their mother, day suddenly turned to night, or Derek processing his emotions with Styrofoam cup puppets, or a scene in which the sound of Michelle’s heart subtly bleeds into the film’s score. These moments feel less effortful, and as a result, less manufactured to coerce feeling; they flow more freely. There’s something to be said about Stay Awake’s climax, too: it’s one of the film’s few scenes that finally gets past the texture-less veneer to reveal the mutilated underbelly of the family’s draining, painful circumstances. But for too much of the film, we are left wondering about the emotional truth that exists between the family’s repeating tremors. Sisley shows us plenty, but ultimately very little is done to portray the emotional collateral of addiction in a way that couldn’t be conveyed in an anti-drug PSA.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.