Addiction is a tough thing to portray on film and television, but some portrayals are spot-on. Here are movies about addiction that got it right.
Drug addiction is a compelling topic for literature and film because it tells us something about the ugliest corners of the human condition.
But it takes true skill to do that ugliness justice–to be honest without being exploitative, artistic without being romantic.
If you’re trying to help a recovering addict, a good place to start is trying to understand their frame of mind. These three movies about addiction can help.
The Basketball Diaries
Based on a book of the same name, The Basketball Diaries tells the story of Jim Carroll, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Carroll is a Catholic school teenager with an immense talent for basketball. At the start of the film, the court forms his mental landscape, and for all his privilege, it isn’t a happy one.
He is part of an unbeatable basketball team, but he also has a best friend dying of leukemia and a coach who takes unacceptable liberties with his players.
Once in a while, Carroll gets stoned with his friends, his focus still on the game. But soon enough, as the pressure builds and escape looks ever more promising than reality, he falls deep into heroin addiction. And as that addiction takes control, Jim is kicked out of his mother’s house and on the streets, desperate for another high.
DiCaprio gives a performance running the range from elation to utter despair, making Jim’s fall from grace all the more unsettling. It’s a brutal reminder that drug addiction can affect people of all creeds, regardless of social status, class, color, or opportunity.
Trainspotting remains one of the most famous films about drug addiction. This is both for the harrowing nature of the film and the spot-on depiction of life among addicts.
What many people don’t understand about addiction is that, in its darkest corners, once the high is gone and the crash and hunger have set in, no one understands that place so well as fellow addicts. There is a sense of camaraderie and humor to be found in that shared desperation.
Trainspotting understands this fundamental truth, knows the relief to be had among those who understand that careless cruelty and constant lies are necessities between friends who survive from one high to the next.
It has been called many things, but the film is, above all else, pragmatic. It knows the in-jokes among crowds of those at a bar for true drinkers, knows the comfort of not needing to hide when everyone else has hit rock bottom just as hard as you.
It is joyous, it is ugly, it is deeply disturbing, and it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s also painfully real in its portrayal of a heroin addict’s attempt to kick the habit and how truly horrific the spirals of addiction are.
If you needed a film to show the true nature of addiction, this is it. And if it’s enough to scare you or a loved one to get more info about recovery, all the better.
Requiem for a Dream
Perhaps the only film about addiction more famous than Trainspotting is Requiem for a Dream. It’s staying power and its fascination, much like Trainspotting, lies in how it portrays the interior lives of the addicts who populate it.
The premise is simple, if unnerving. An elderly widow, Sara Goldfarb, spends her days alone in Brighton Beach, watching infomercials. Then, she receives a phone call informing her that she’s been invited to participate in a game show.
She becomes obsessed with regaining her youthful appearance and fitting into her old red dress, the favorite of her deceased husband, Seymour. So, in her pursuit of lost youth, she adopts a regimen of weight-loss amphetamines during the day and a sedative at night.
Requiem stands out from other films on this list for how the director uses every tool at his disposal to get the viewer in the psyche of an addict, from the music to the cuts to the use of speed.
But don’t let the artistry fool you: it’s a difficult film to watch. You’ll see the ugliest parts of addiction as Sara Goldfarb spirals ever faster, right down to the dirtiest portions of the underworld addicts reside in.
Learning from Movies About Addiction
If you learn anything from these movies about addiction, remember this: addiction is not pretty, and the road to recovery is anything but direct.
If you’re trying to help a loved one in recovery, make sure you’re equipped to be genuinely helpful. Here’s what not to say to a loved one fighting drug addiction.