Movies That Are Realistic About Addiction

Movies can sometimes reflect aspects of our real lives on the big screen. When a movie achieves a sense of realism, the audience can feel understood or inspired. Although an estimated 20 million people in the US struggle with a substance use disorder (SUD), making realistic movies about addiction can be difficult. Symptoms of substance use may be trivialized, exaggerated, or glamorized. These kinds of portrayals can stigmatize SUDs and drive those struggling further away from treatment

Fortunately, there are movies that are more authentic in their depiction of substance use. These films can be successful in conveying the hardships and feelings of obsession, desperation, and isolation that are associated with drug and alcohol use. Here are a few realistic movies about addiction.

Beautiful Boy: A Realistic Movie About Addiction And Family

Beautiful Boy is a 2018 film starring Steve Carrel and Timothée Chalamet. The Felix Van Groeningen directed movie is based on 2 2008 memoirs that tell the true story of David and Nick Sheef. David is the father of Nick who is struggling with Meth use. This dual perspective allows the audience to feel empathy for both sides: the user and his family. David is desperate to help his son by any and all means as Nick’s addiction progresses. Nick’s cycle of relapse and recovery is juxtaposed with flashbacks of his childhood to show the emotional toll that one’s substance use can have on familial relationships

Nick’s sense of privilege and stability are powerless in the face of drug use. Despite being a smart and creative kid with plenty of opportunities to be successful, Nick’s intense dependency on crystal Meth overcomes all other priorities. Beautiful Boy is a realistic movie about addiction because it highlights the idea that the struggles of a SUD does not discriminate and can affect everyone in a user’s life. 

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Requiem For A Dream: Contrasting Addiction And Potential

Director Darren Aronofsky tells a story of how addiction can easily derail a person’s life in the 2000 psychological drama Requiem For A Dream. This realistic movie about addiction follows 4 interconnected people and their separate struggles with substance use. Sara Goldfarb, portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, is the mother of Harold or Harry, played by Jared Leto. Sara is dependent on appetite suppressant amphetamines. Harry, his girlfriend Maryanne (Jennifer Connolley), and their friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) use black tar Heroin. Each character has an emotional void that they are using substances to cope with. 

Despite their clear use, the specific names of the substances and even the word “drug” is never said in the film. Each character also has non-substance addictions such as television, money, or a co-dependent relationship. By showing that addiction can come in all shapes and forms, the audience can reflect inward on their own dependencies. Aronofsky uses very stylized montages with manipulated time and music crescendos to mimic the anxiety, tension, and stress that is induced by drug use. The film contrasts the dark path of substance use with the aspirations and potential of the characters. This comparison humanizes the characters by showing that they are average people with real lives and struggles. 

Uncut Gems: How Gambling Puts Everything At Risk

Certain sets of behaviors can also lead to an addiction when an individual is unable to resist their impulses. The 2019 film, Uncut Gems, tells the cautionary tale of Howard Ratner who struggles with a sports gambling disorder. Gambling is the only behavioral disorder recognized in the DSM-5. Howard’s dependency on sports gambling puts all other aspects of his life at risk including his family. The audience is completely immersed in the high stress, denial, and chaos involved in Howard’s destructive gambling cycle. 

Directors Josh and Benny Safdie, who love sports but do not gamble, hoped that their realistic movie about addiction could help to reverse the normalization of gambling disorders. Because sports gambling is legal in 25 states, many do not consider it an addiction. Although seemingly harmless, a gambling disorder can affect one’s relationships, finances, work performance, and use of other substances.

Sound Of Metal: A Realistic Movie About Addiction And Deafness

Sound Of Metal is a 2019 film that tells the story of Rueben, a drummer in recovery who suddenly begins to lose his hearing. Reuben, portrayed by Riz Ahmed, calls his sponsor who suggests he enter a rural sober living home specifically for deaf people. Concerned about his sobriety, his girlfriend leaves him at the center against his will. Reuben is resistant to accepting his new hearing loss and becomes obsessed with solutions that will help him return to normalcy. This is portrayed as being a new form of addiction for Reuben. 

This Academy Award winning film has been recognized for its use of sound to accurately depict deafness. Representations of deaf culture in this realistic movie about addiction show how other factors, disabilities, or disorders can affect an individual’s relationship to substance use. The treatment center in the film is an example of a culture specific treatment option that differs from the stereotypical 12-step programs that are typically shown in movies.

Trainspotting: Two Signs Of The Addiction Coin

1996’s British comedy-drama, Trainspotting, was directed by Danny Boyle and stars Ewan McGregor as Renton. Renton and his friends are Heroin users living in Edinburgh, Scotland. The film follows Renton’s attempts to quit using Heroin. In doing so, the movie shows the misery, social destruction, and death that can result from substance use. The substance use addressed in Trainspotting is still a major problem in Scotland which has the highest drug related death rate in Europe. 

Some have criticized this film for glamorizing substance use. Boyle has defended his choices in his movie about addiction by saying that he wanted to show why people do drugs and how temporary euphoric effects lead to awful outcomes. The adverse effects of substance use can be seen in the realistic withdrawal scenes in the movie. The film also comments on the use of substances as a form of escapism when the characters use Heroin in response to a tragic event that was caused by their substance use. 

Seeking Treatment

These films do their best to show how addiction affects more than just the user. Creative sound, dialogue, and visual effects help to make viewers understand what substance use and associated stress feels like to users. For more information on substance use disorders and treatment options, contact a treatment provider today.

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Emily Murray

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  • Emily Murray is a Digital Content Writer at Addiction Center. She earned a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies with Behavioral/Social Sciences and Art concentrations along with a Journalism minor from the University of Central Florida. Dedicated to creativity and conciseness, Emily hopes her words can be of service to those affected by addiction.

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