72. Berlinale 2022
Dir. Jamie Sisley
Starring: Chrissy Metz, Wyatt Oleff & Fin Argus
With festival season in full swing it’s great to have the chance to see another feature film that is based on a short film (the first being the Sundance Premiere of ‘Piggy’ directed by Carlota Pereda). Stay Awake is adapted from director Jamie Sisley 2015 short film of the same name which won the National Board of Review Student Grant and the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance for Best Narrative short.
Based on director Sisley’s personal experiences growing up small-town America 'Stay Awake' focusing on Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) and his older brother Derek (Fin Angus) who are both struggling to take care of their mother Michelle (Chrissy Metz, who also serving as Executive Producer). Tired of having to deal with their mothers dependancy on prescription drugs Ethan, having gotten into collage clear across the country, sees this as an apt opportunity for him and his older brother Derek to leave home and never look back.
There is an emotional punch to 'Stay Awake' that hits you in the first moments we see Michelle. One is grabbed into her space through some invisible force that is almost overwhelming even though this first scene is somewhat mundane as Michelle is simply preparing some food. With the music playing in the background and Michelle singing along something, something as equally invisible, stops her in her tracks. What happens? In an instant something inside Michelle switches off and her focus is gone leaving her son Ethan, coming home from school, to turn off the running tap and, with his brother, begin another search for their mother.
One of the most important and powerful decisions Sisley makes with 'Stay Awake' is never allowing his audience to see Michelle taking drugs, we are only privy to the aftermath which is, in itself, gut wrenching. Both Ethan and Derek know that the issues their mother faces is not all of her own doing and that Dr. Carson, Robert Vincent Smith, is partially responsible for her continued addiction. And it is through this understanding that we see the corruption within the system that’s predicated on maintaining a steady flow of addicts that ensures they never get the help addicts need and people like Michelle are milked for all their insurance is worth.
Sisley captures the isolation that Michelle and her sons experience with skill that comes from experience, knowledge and understanding of the very people he has written about. Ethan and Derek carry their mother into the hospital and greet Vicki, Lorrie Odom, like she’s an old friend who is part of their routine of saving their mothers. This is a small town, everyone knows everyones business and most folk know that Dr. Carson is a quack, yet there is no support for them and nobody is stopping him. Ethan and Derek both rebel against Dr. Carson in their own way that also interestingly allows the audience to get a bit more of an insight of them as young men and their overall understanding of what their mother is going through.
Isolation becomes loneliness and we see Michelle working from home, Derek making the best of his job and Ethan struggling to find his voice and conflicted on some of the choices he is making. Though they are there for each other are they relying on this support network they have created too much? The relationship between the bothers is genuinely brought to life through the beautiful chemistry between Oleff and Angus. You understand where each brother is coming from and Sisley limits the tension between them by showing how each brother really does understand the situation and they are more than aware that something has to give. The only emotional breakdown Ethan has with his brother is after the last time they take their mother to the hospital. This scene is painful and powerful with both Oleff and Angus capturing the spirit and essence of these two young men in an unforgettable way. And it is this scene and moment that we understand that they have made a final decision, one this is going to be best for all three of them.
"This becomes his realisation that his life is truly beginning and no matter what lays ahead only he can make of his life what he wants."
Derek is father and older brother to Ethan and like many men in his situation he has to try and find a balance that aims to keep the three of them together. There really is a beauty in the positive outlook Derek has and his unwillingness to admit defeat even though everything around him is showing him that defeat is inevitable. Derek is drowning but so long as he can keep his head above water long enough to take in one more breath of air he is never going to give up. As for Ethan his struggle is twofold as he not only does needs to save himself he also has to discover who he is and what he wants from his life. Ethan is guarded even with Derek only breaking down the barrier he’s put around himself during a late night conversation with his mother while she is in rehab. Oleff and Metz are incredible in this scene that unpacks more than you could imagine.
Like most of the film there is an important avoidance of sentimentality but in this scene there is a touching moment between mother and son that is filled with love and understanding. It is in this scene Ethan looks at his mother in a different way, he sees that she is a good mother, a mother who does love him and knows him more than he knows himself.
At the core 'Stay Awake' is a typical film of typical people living in an Americana that was/is long thought dead. Langford is a place that still has a local Ice Cream kiosk and a popular bowling alley that is still a hub of the community, it is unique in its un-uniqueness and this is why the film stays with you. Award-winning cinematographer Alejandro Mejía’s haunting photography creates an unimaginably beauty that captures the wealth and detail of a simple American own that gives 'Stay Awake' its unforgettable look. And Ben Sollee’s score equally lifts this feature into another place by always managing to keep the audience connected to the story, experiences and characters with a gentle realism that’s equal parts touching and real.
There is no real positive or uplifting way that one can end a film like 'Stay Awake'; should there be a ‘happy ending’ or should the filmmaker go full sentimental or brutally dark? Somehow Sisley has found a balance that has creates a positive, almost uplifting, way to end his feature. We understand that Ethan and Derek have to forge their own path in their own lives, even as young men they should not have the responsibility that they have. As Michelle witnesses families coming together to welcome their loved ones back into society she, possibly the first time, is alone but thanks to Langford’s only Uber Driver (and by default her sons), we get to see in a truly lovely moment, that she is offered a chance of self-redemption that might allow her the opportunity to, slowly, build her life back. And by the end, as the brothers sit in the mini-van heading East Ethan gives his other brother a look that is one of love and undeniable respect and yet it is more than that. This becomes his realisation that his life is truly beginning and no matter what lays ahead only he can make of his life what he wants.
Through their history, lost opportunities and general struggles life has thrown at them the back story seems to hold little importance for Sisley, with no flashbacks or adding much historical drama Sisley has aided his screenplay greatly. Though we do get some small snippets of this families past and troubles, he allows for the present story of his three main characters to come through with care and with zero judgement. 'Stay Awake' is powerful, honest film that is filled with truth without being overly sentimental. Sisley has found a balance that not only works but also allows the audience to really connect and understand who this family is. We're never forced to sympathise or pity this family we simply grow to understand who they are and the very real pain, situation and difficult choices they each have to make.