Movies have the power to take us away to different places and to help us escape a sometimes-harsh reality. However films, like the art form they are, often time have the power to imitate life and to present a relatable message in humanistic themes. Such is the way with movies about recovery, sometimes called ‘Recovery Movies.”
Recovery movies attempt to display the struggles of addiction and recovery from substance abuse as their main theme and conflict within the storyline. Often cast by well-known actors, they attempt to show us what recovery really looks like. While these movies can be heartwarming and even captivating, it is important to remember an age-old adage “Don’t believe everything you see in the movies.”
Recovery is not a sideshow, a spectacle or a performance we must put on for people. Recovery manifests itself in its own form of solidarity within the heart and spirit of all those who work a spiritual program of action. Recovery is not what you see on the silver screen…
We thought it would be fun here at Oregon Trail Recovery to make a list of ten recovery films that we would recommend watching. Some of them are well known, and some you may have never heard of before. They make for an interesting discussion around step study or book study groups, as well as other members of your immediate support group who are acquainted with addiction and recovery. We hope you find this piece both fun and informing.
So, without further ado, here is Oregon Trail Recovery’s Top Ten Recovery Movies:
(Drum Roll Please….)
28 Days – Sandra Bullock. Viggo Mortensen. 2000.
This was one time referred to me as the “Oh, yeah. You mean the ‘Sandra Bullock goes to rehab movie’ they make us watch in treatment?” Though a morose comment, the person did have a point, as the middle of the film does seem to drag along a little. 28 Days tells the story of Gwen Cummings, a semi-successful columnist who is forced to go into treatment after she makes a complete fool of herself at her sister’s wedding because she was severely intoxicated and crashed her car while driving drunk. Gwen is obviously resentful and rebellious of the whole treatment experience, and the idea of abstinence-based recovery in general, which is more than evident as she continuously tries to convince the counselors that she does need to be in this specific, and obviously very corny treatment facility (which causes patients to have chants after group such as “You can keep your pills and snow-white powder, we have us a higher power.”) Gwen does some soul searching in the facility and the rest of the film centers around her progress in various areas of her life, including the people she associates with. The main take away from this film I always found was the honest portrayal of what it’s like when two people are dating and one decides to get sober, but the other one does not. The idea of loving yourself before you love someone else is very prevalent towards the film, which is an important lesson for newcomers to remember. All in all, a decent representation of what it’s like to go to treatment. So, if you’re in the mood for a light-hearted movie about recovery and addiction, check out 28 Days. (Just don’t confuse it with 28 Days Later. COMPLETELY different movie!)
9) When A Man Loves a Woman – Meg Ryan. Andy Garcia. 1994
This film shows the viewer the idea of what happens when there is an alcoholic in the family. And furthermore, allows us to see exactly what type of toll alcohol can take on the family. When A Man Loves a Woman does precisely that from the display of Meg Ryan’s character Alice Green’s crippling alcoholism which begins to take hold. The key theme that stands out in this movie, however, is the enabling of alcoholics by their families, which is portrayed in the loving and devotional nature of Alice’s husband. The viewer is presented with a heart-warming romantic drama but gets to experience the alcoholic in the family in a very real and raw presentation. This movie would be good to show both members of Alcoholics Anonymous and Alanon members, which can then begin the discussion of how to truly love for the alcoholic in the family.
8) My Name is Bill W. – James Woods. James Gardner. 1989
This docudrama tells the story of William Griffith Wilson, later to become known as Bill Wilson, or Bill W., The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. The film tells the story of Bill’s rise to wealth in the early 1920’s, to his eventual financial ruin and descent into alcoholism, which propelled him to seek a higher purpose of helping other alcoholics to help himself stay sober. It tells all the key stories found in the first chapter of The Big Book, including his phone call conversation in a hotel room lobby with Dr. Bob, and ends with the publishing of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is a wonderful portrayal of the founding of the first 12 step based recovery program and the recovery of 100’s of alcoholics.
7) Clean and Sober – Michael Keaton. Morgan Freeman. 1988
Daryl Porter is a man who has it all, at least that’s what he believes. He’s a real estate agent with a big ego, and an even bigger cocaine and alcohol problem. He seems to be keeping everything together, until after one night of partying, he wakes up next to a dead woman. She has succumbed to a cocaine overdose. In a panic, Darryl checks himself into treatment to “lay low” and to avoid any issues with police. There he meets a stern counselor (played by the magnificent Morgan Freeman) who also happens to be a recovering drug addict. He refuses to play into Darryl’s manipulation, and for the first time, Darryl starts to get acquainted with some powerlessness. This would be an excellent film for anyone who thinks that wealth and prowess will be able to get them clean and sober.
6) Everything Must Go – Will Ferrell. Rebecca Hall. 2011
Will Ferrell takes on the role of Nick Halsey; an alcoholic salesman who in the span of one day, not only relapses, but loses his job. He then comes home to find all his belongings strewn about across the lawn by his wife (soon to be ex-wife). Nick, being the alcoholic, he is, is perfectly content with just sitting on the lawn surrounded by all his belongings and drinking beer all day long. His neighbor eventually convinces him that to make this all legal, he should probably have a yard sale, since he doesn’t want to get help. So, that is precisely what Nick choose to do. Everything Must Go doesn’t just reacquaint the viewer with the idea of powerlessness, it also offers a lot of hope that even when we think the whole world is over, there is still a sense of community to be found within us to give us the inspiration to find help. While the movie only touches a little on recovery, Everything Must Go is a reminder that there is someone out there who cares about an alcoholic, and doesn’t want to see him keep drinking.
5) Smashed– Mark Elizabeth Winstead. Nick Offerman. 2012
Smashed tells the story of a Los Angeles area school teacher Kate and her husband Charlie. Kate and Charlie have an entire relationship centered around heavy drinking and partying, but are both able to “keep it together.” One night, Kate finds herself at the beginning of a quite an interesting bender which takes her to the streets, where she eventually wakes up behind a dumpster. She dusts herself off, gets herself to work, tries composing herself, but has come to the realization that she may have just hit her rock bottom. After some more alcohol-related trouble at her job (where she is around children), she decides to begin attending AA meetings. With the help of her principle, who is also a recovering addict (played by the always awesome Nick Offerman), Kate begins to see what life without drugs and alcohol looks like, and just what troubles and strifes come with that. In this author’s humble opinion, this is one of the most accurate depictions of what it’s like to get sober at a young age. I would highly recommend this movie.
4) The Lost Weekend – Ray Miland. Jane Wyman.1946
Here’s a selection from the Golden Age of Cinema. The Lost Weekend goes on to tell the story of Don Birman, a long-time alcoholic who is currently ten days sober. The film follows him as he starts on a 4-day bender, which he promises to be his last, one way or another. With flashbacks from other drunken debacles he has had in the past, the viewer gets a perfect glimpse into the extent of Don’s alcoholism.
This film went on to win numerous Academy Awards that same year, including best picture. The interesting fact of the film is its portrayal of restlessness, irritability, and powerlessness that comes with chronic alcoholism that was perfect outlines in the text Alcoholics Anonymous just 7 years prior to the release of this film. Its impact on audience members brought exposure to the idea of what the disease of alcoholism and the subsequent recovery thereafter could actually look like. Truly an impactful film of its time, all centered around the search for sobriety.
3) Crazy Heart – Jeff Bridges. Maggie Gyllenhaal. 2009
Crazy Heart tells the story of Bad Blake, a broken down and old washed up, alcoholic country singer who has had a life wrought with career failures, broken marriages, and drunken debacles. Bad is currently on one of his sparsely attended tours, playing old gin joints and dive bars. Just as he is trying to hold on to his old, hard image, he meets Jean, a sweet hearted journalist who is also a single mother of a wonderful child. Bad shacks up with Jean and her son, with the agreed-upon plea that he will not drink in front of the kid. Like any good alcoholic, Bad can’t keep to his promise, proceeds to dig deeper into rock bottom, only to find recovery with some bittersweet realizations and discoveries in the end.
Crazy Heart is not only a brilliant representation of what long-term alcoholism can do to a person’s health and social standing, but it also shows us the pain of “not always getting what we want” when we make the choice to get sober. A beautiful film that contains a heartwarming message, mixed with a lovely soundtrack.
2) Flight – Denzel Washington. Kelly Reilly. 2012
This Oscar-nominated film from 2012 tells the harrowing story of Cpt. Whip Whitaker, a commuting airline pilot who was trafficking a full airplane from Orlando to Atlanta one morning which suddenly malfunctioned midair, causing him to have to perform an almost miraculous landing, saving all but 6 passengers on the plane. Whip is no doubt hailed as a hero at first, but there’s only one problem; Whip was drunk and high on cocaine when he got in the cockpit of the airline that morning. The film follows Whip’s demise into alcoholism amidst the eventual trial concerning the crash which will decide his fate as a pilot and if he will spend time in prison.
The film paints an extremely gripping view of what it is like to struggle with alcoholism and the resistance that most folks have to getting sober even when faced with unprecedented consequences because of their drinking and drug use. Viewers will have much to discuss and how this story relates to their own ideas of powerlessness.
In general, the film received an incredible response from viewers and critics alike. However, professional airline pilots challenged the validity of the film’s plotline, saying there was absolutely no way any pilot would be allowed to step into a cockpit drunk or high especially considering their rigorous pre-screening security checks and random drug tests.
Still, the story is gripping and has the capability of staying with the viewer who has had their own struggles with drugs and alcohol.
1) The Days of Wine and Roses – Jack Lemmon. Lee Remick. 1962
The Days of Wine and Roses is an absolutely touching story about a struggling alcoholic who falls in love with a sweet, down-home girl, only to have such a sway and influence over her that they are both all but lost in a sea of alcoholism. When one of them attempts to get sober, the other is not prepared to walk down the same path. They ultimately must make the decision of if this relationship can continue, or if one would rather be with alcohol.
The story not only touches on the horrible power that alcohol can have on romantic relationships, but it also details out what it is like for someone to enter the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous completely broken and lost. The trials and tribulations, the confusion, and of course; the pitiable incomprehensible demoralization.
This is the type of movie that stays with you if you have had your own experiences with addictions, and one that can certainly stimulate good discussion about relationships and alcoholism.
– J. Dalton Williams