Stay Awake movie review & film summary (2023)

Ethan, the elder brother, is an actor who’s gotten work on local commercials and feels that he’s good enough to have a shot at a career if he can relocate to an entertainment industry hub and continue his training. Derek is an academic whiz who’s about to graduate high school and has been awarded a scholarship at an Ivy League university. In an ideal world, their only concerns would be the mix of anxiety and excitement that comes with jumping into adulthood.

The brothers adore their mother and treat her with love and patience, repeatedly driving her to the emergency room after overdoses. They sit in the front seat of the family’s only car and sing old songs on the way to the hospital, pressing their mother to identify each tune to make sure she’s not drifting into oblivion. But the movie subtly makes you aware of what their dedication costs them, as in a scene where Ethan stops by the ice cream shop where he works alongside his girlfriend Ashley (Quinn McCoglan) and notices his friend Mark (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper) sitting with friends at a table outside. Although there’s no dialogue, you know what Ethan is thinking: I should be with them, too, but I can’t be, because of my mom. Things get more fraught when the family has an accident on the way to the hospital, emphasizing the film’s most distinctive virtue: the way it situates the family’s problems with in the context of a coldly merciless American society that only cares about the rich and the upper -middle class, in that order.

The collision wrecks the family’s only ride and forces the family to take lifts everywhere at the same time that Michelle is entering a recovery facility. The state-run facility is essentially “discount rehab,” the only place they could afford. On their tour, Michelle asks the director and head counselor (Albert Jones) if it’s true that they have a yoga studio, and he has to tell her that although they have a room that used to be a yoga studio, it had to be converted to hold the replacement boiler that they bought with the money they once paid their yoga instructor. The brothers had toured a superior facility but nixed it after finding out it cost $800 a day. (“We an absolutely take five percent off for those families that require financial aid,” the director says.)

They could get free treatment for their mother if she could be committed to a psych ward, but that would require proving that she’s tried to harm herself. “She’s not crazy,” Ethan tells Derek. “She doesn’t try to eat people or throw her own feces. Rehab’s the right move.” Then there’s a cut to Michelle sitting in the bathroom listening to her sons talk about her. She has that zoned-out yet ashamed expression people have when they realize they’re a burden on others.

The movie seems as if it’s pulling its punches. Addiction and recovery are painful grinds for both the addict and everyone in their inner circle, and there’s surely a more raw, confrontational, not-so-nice movie lurking inside this one. And the screenplay is sometimes too earnestly blunt and network TV-like in the way that its characters talk to each other, as in a scene where Ashley tears into Ethan after finding out that he would prefer to go to the Ivy League school rather than the one they’ve both been admitted to (she yells a laundry list of her dissatisfactions at him; it’s like a crowd-pleasing “telling somebody off” scene on a sitcom).